For many years now, courts throughout the country – including those in Florida – have restricted plaintiff collection of punitive damages in asbestos litigation.

Plaintiffs could still win or settle cases for well into the six figures, but courts wouldn’t impose an order that defendants should have to pay more as “punishment” for their actions, which usually included knowingly manufacturing dangerous products and then actively concealing the risks.

Our mesothelioma attorneys note, however, a recent decision by New York Supreme Court Justice Sherry Klein Heitler, which departs from years of prior practice in the state’s asbestos litigation in allowing plaintiffs to once again seek punitive damages at the outset of a case. Previously, an independent judicial admission to the Case Management Order for mesothelioma lawsuits had required that all punitive damage claims be deferred “until such time the court deems otherwise.”

While the updated ruling only impacts New York cases, Florida justices are no doubt eying the decision closely and could look to it for guidance as similar challenges arise here.

Heitler’s finding was in response to a motion requesting an order to lift deferral requirements for punitive damages under the state’s case management law. In her ruling, the high court justice cited “serious constitutional equal protections concerns which should not be overlooked.”

Opponents of punitive damages in these cases have several arguments. One is that punitive damages serve only to deplete resources for future victims. The other is that it has the effect of repeatedly punishing companies for the same actions over and over again. In their view, not paying at all is the better alternative.

Plaintiff attorneys, in this case, argued that deferral or denial of punitive damages is not only unconstitutional but unethical and serves to give defendants a reason to decline settlement discussions.

Defense lawyers say that the order will serve as a “club” that claimants will use to “pound” defendants into submission in the form of settlements.

What Heitler allowed was not a sweeping agreement to allow punitive damages in all cases. But motions for punitive damages should be considered carefully on a case-by-case basis. She underscored the fact that plaintiffs alleging injury caused by asbestos should have the same rights to seek a punitive damage award as any other plaintiff in the state.

This amended Case Management Order will now be used to govern all continuing asbestos litigation proceedings in the state.

Plaintiffs have been warned, however, not to abuse the opportunity by seeking punitive damages indiscriminately.

Although defense lawyers are arguing that the ruling serves only to make plaintiff attorneys richer, let’s look at the whole point of punitive damages. It’s not to compensate the plaintiff. Rather, it’s to punish the defendant and, in doing so, discourage the defendant and others from engaging in the same kinds of actions in the future.

The judge who enacted the punitive damage deferment in New York asbestos cases said she did so because there seemed to be no corrective purpose in it as the wrongs had been committed decades earlier. Further, some of the wrongs had been committed by predecessor companies, perhaps not even the company currently charged.

Heitler brushed off arguments that the industry had already endured some 100 company bankruptcies or that punitive damages aren’t necessary because asbestos-laden products have been all but eliminated nationally. She said there was no indication that punitive damages caused company bankruptcies. Rather, that was due to the massive number of people who filed lawsuits – because scores of people were severely harmed by the actions of these companies. Further, she said punitive damages need not always have a strict corrective or deterrent purpose.

Frequently Asked Questions: Mesothelioma & Asbestos

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Help for mesothelioma victims can be found at The Ferraro Law Firm by calling (888) 554-2030. Offices in Miami, Washington, D.C., and New York City.

Additional Resources:
Punitive damages reintroduced in NYC asbestos litigation, April 9, 2014, By Heather Isringhausen Gvillo, Legal Newsline

More Blog Entries:
Asbestos Victim Exposure History Revelation Critical in Litigation, June 22, 2013, Mesothelioma Lawyer Blog