September 10, 2018

Court of Appeal affirms trial court's decision not to award punitive damages in bench trial (Williams v. Pep Boys)

The First Appellate District, Division Four, certified this opinion for partial publication, but the punitive damages discussion is unpublished.  That discussion is an interesting read anyway, especially for anyone involved in asbestos litigation.

J.D. Williams died of mesothelioma.  His children brought this lawsuit claiming their father's disease was caused by exposure to asbestos in a number of ways, including through his occasional use of asbestos-containing replacement brakes he purchased from The Pep Boys.  After a bench trial, the trial court found the Pep Boys liable and awarded compensatory damages, but rejected the plaintiffs' claim for punitive damages.  The plaintiffs appealed, challenging that ruling (and a few other rulings not relevant for our purposes).

On appeal, the plaintiffs cited other recent opinions that have affirmed punitive damages awards in asbestos cases, and argued that they had presented a "classic case" for punitive damages.  I.e., they offered evidence that the defendant sold asbestos-containing products, and that there was scientific information available at the time showing that asbestos could cause disease.  The Court of Appeal found those cases distinguishable for two primary reasons: (1) the plaintiffs failed to show that Pep Boys was actually aware of any dangers posed by its products at the time of Mr. Williams' alleged exposures, and (2) the trial court could reasonably conclude the defendant did not act with malice "because of the how the state of scientific knowledge regarding the risks of asbestos exposure evolved over time."

That second point is particularly interesting.  In the early days of California asbestos litigation, punitive damages claims were rare, because it was understood that scientific and medical information about asbestos-related diseases had evolved considerably between the time of exposures and the time of trial. But hindsight bias powerfully suggests that something that has in fact come to pass was foreseeable all along. For that reason, it has become all too easy in recent years for judges and jurors, especially those who are too young to remember a time when asbestos did not have the stigma it has today, to conclude that any company that used asbestos, at any time, had necessarily ignored a known health risk.  This opinion shows there's still at least a little resistance to that way of thinking in some corners of the California judicial system.