Products Liability Law Daily Insufficient evidence of reckless indifference extinguishes punitive damage claims in fragrance oil fire case
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Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Insufficient evidence of reckless indifference extinguishes punitive damage claims in fragrance oil fire case

By Kathleen Bianco, J.D.

The makers of polymer fragrance oil were entitled to judgment on a claim for punitive damages filed by a company that used the fragrance oil in its manufacturing process in the production of "fragrance concentrate products," a federal district court in Pennsylvania ruled. The action arose out of a plant fire that allegedly was caused by defective fragrance oil. In reaching its conclusion, the court held that the company seeking punitive damages failed to demonstrate evil motive or reckless indifference on the part of the oil makers (Dyvex Industries, Inc. v. Agilex Flavors & Fragrances, Inc., February 12, 2018, Mannion, M.).

The company (fragrance company) that used fragrance oils in its manufacture of fragrance concentrate products filed suit against three fragrance oil makers—Agilex Flavors & Fragrances, Inc., Aromatic Technologies, Inc., and Aroma Tech—following an industrial fire allegedly caused by a defective fragrance oil produced by the oil makers. The fire caused extensive damage to the fragrance company’s plant and surrounding property, resulting in the plant having to halt operations for a period of time. The company sued the oil makers, asserting claims for negligence, strict liability, breach of contract, and breach of warranty, and requested punitive damages. The oil makers denied liability and filed a partial motion for summary judgment on the punitive damages claim.

Punitive damages. In challenging the punitive damages claim, the oil makers argued that the evidence failed to establish the culpable mental state required under Pennsylvania law to prove the recklessly indifferent conduct required for an award of punitive damages. Under Pennsylvania law, punitive damages are an extreme remedy that only should be awarded for conduct that is outrageous because of the defendant’s evil motive or reckless indifference to the rights of others. In order to prevail on such a claim, a plaintiff must demonstrate that the defendants have a subjective appreciation of the risk of harm to which the plaintiff was exposed and that the defendants acted, or failed to act, in conscious disregard of that risk.

In support of its request for punitive damages, the fragrance company contended that the oil makers had acted with a reckless indifference by providing it with a reformulated oil alleged to have a lower flashpoint than other oils without warning the company of the flammability hazard. All of the fragrance company’s evidence in support of these contentions was disputed by the oil makers. After reviewing the evidence, the court opined that while the plaintiff’s evidence may have established negligence on the part of the defendants that was not enough to support an award of punitive damages. There was no showing of evil motive or reckless indifference. As such, the court concluded that the fragrance company failed to produce adequate evidence to create a jury question on the issue of punitive damages. Accordingly, the defendants’ motion for summary judgment on the claim for punitive damages was granted.

The case is No. 3:12-cv-00979-MEM.

Attorneys: Howard A. Rothenberg (Herlands Rothenberg & Levine) for Dyvex Industries, Inc. John J. Snyder (Rawle & Henderson, LLP) for Agilex Flavors & Fragrances, Inc., Aromatic Technologies, Inc., and Aroma Tech

Companies: Dyvex Industries, Inc.; Agilex Flavors & Fragrances, Inc.; Aromatic Technologies, Inc.; Aroma Tech

MainStory: TopStory DamagesNews ChemicalNews PennsylvaniaNews

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