New York Asbestos Plaintiffs’ Firms Move to End Deferment of Punitive Damages

On March 5, 2013, twelve plaintiffs’ firms served a joint motion in New York County Supreme Court seeking to end the automatic deferral of punitive damages in asbestos cases.  Since 1996, when the deferment of punitive damages claims was first included in the standing case management order in the New York County Asbestos Litigation (NYCAL), no jury in that venue has heard a punitive damages claim and no punitive damages have been awarded.  The joint motion argues that the landscape in NYCAL has dramatically changed since 1996 and, as such, the ban on punitive damages should be lifted when the circumstances clearly and convincingly warrant so.

The plaintiffs’ firms argue that NYCAL plaintiffs are prejudiced by the deferment in that they are forced to watch as plaintiffs in other states and other venues within New York allow for punitive damages.  Further, they argue that NYCAL defendants have not faced a single trial with the potential for punitive damages and that the deferral “emboldens certain defendants to resist engaging in reasonable settlement efforts, to clog up the court’s dockets, to thereby waste judicial and litigant resources, and to severely prejudice many in extremis victims by delaying the resolution of their claims.”  The problem is compounded, the plaintiffs’ firms contend, by the fact that most insurance policies cover compensatory damages but not punitive damages, making defendants even more likely to proceed to trial.

New York County is by far the highest volume venue in New York State in terms of asbestos filings.  New York County also boasts the highest settlement and verdict numbers.  The threat of reintroducing punitive damages into the already bloated litigation should be a serious concern for any and all potential asbestos defendants.  The costs of doing business in NYCAL are already high and, if the plaintiffs’ firms have their way, could skyrocket.


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