November 13, 2020

Court of Appeal affirms $6 million punitive damages award in asbestos case (Barr v. Parker-Hannifin)

This unpublished opinion affirms a punitive damages award against Parker-Hannifin, a company that sold asbestos-containing replacement brakes in the late 1970s and 1980s.

Parker-Hannifin argued on appeal that the punitive damages should be reversed because the plaintiff presented no evidence that anyone at the company knew during the relevant time that its products were harmful.  The Court of Appeal (First District, Division Three) rejected that argument, citing evidence that the company complied with OSHA regulations at its own factory, to protect its workers from asbestos exposure.  From that evidence, the court concludes that the company knew asbestos was dangerous, and therefore should have protected consumers of brakes.

The court's analysis does not confront the fact that asbestos exposures in the factory would have been orders of magnitude higher than any exposures experienced by users of the finished product, or the fact that the factory workers were potentially exposed to raw asbestos, whereas the end users could only have been exposed to heavily processed fibers with different potential for causing disease. Given those differences between the two types of exposures, many manufacturers in the 1970s took precautions in their factories without believing that any risks existed for end users.  But the Court of Appeal's opinion does not grapple with that issue, and instead concludes that substantial evidence supports the conclusion that the manufacturer acted despicably and in conscious disregard of a known risk to consumers.

Disclosure: Horvitz & Levy participated in this case, representing Parker-Hannifin's co-defendant, Standard Motor Products, which was not found liable for punitive damages.