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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.
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Frequently Asked Questions: Mesothelioma & Asbestos
What is asbestos?
Asbestos is a carcinogenic, naturally occurring fibrous mineral. Known for its heat resistance and durability, asbestos has historically been used in insulation, construction materials, automotive parts, and shipbuilding materials.
Why is asbestos dangerous?
Asbestos is made up of small shard-like fibers that can easily become airborne when disturbed. If inhaled or ingested, these fibers can embed within the lining of the lungs, heart, stomach, or testes where they can cause cancer to form years or decades later.
What are asbestos-related diseases?
Asbestos exposure can cause mesothelioma, asbestosis, and lung cancer.
What causes mesothelioma?
Mesothelioma is an aggressive and incurable form of cancer caused by exposure to asbestos. Unfortunately, symptoms of mesothelioma may not appear until decades after exposure.
What are the different types of mesothelioma?
Three of the most common types of mesothelioma are pleural mesothelioma, peritoneal mesothelioma, and pericardial mesothelioma.
What are common mesothelioma symptoms?
Common symptoms of mesothelioma include difficulty breathing and chest pains. Peritoneal mesothelioma, which affects the stomach, may cause abdominal swelling, loss of appetite, constipation, abdominal pain, and nausea.
Do I qualify for compensation if I have mesothelioma?
Mesothelioma is a preventable form of cancer most commonly caused by asbestos exposure. If you were exposed to asbestos while serving in the U.S. military or while working in construction, mechanics, or a similar field, you may be eligible for compensation. Contact The Ferraro Law Firm for a free legal consultation.
What is the life expectancy for someone with mesothelioma?
There is no cure for mesothelioma. However, patients can receive treatments for mesothelioma that may extend their initial prognosis with proper treatment. Those diagnosed with peritoneal mesothelioma usually have a life expectancy that is greater than three years, though a large part of this depends on the stage the patient is diagnosed. The earlier the diagnosis, the longer the life expectancy and chance of long-term survival.
Do I qualify for compensation if I have mesothelioma?
If you have been diagnosed with mesothelioma, you should immediately seek long-term medical treatment. After that, you should contact our firm to examine your legal rights. Since 1985, The Ferraro Law Firm has represented individuals with asbestos-related diseases and pursued fair compensation on their behalf. Our firm is one of the top five law firms in the U.S. handling mesothelioma and asbestos cases.
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.
Punitive damages reintroduced in NYC asbestos litigation, April 9, 2014, By Heather Isringhausen Gvillo, Legal Newsline
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Asbestos Victim Exposure History Revelation Critical in Litigation, June 22, 2013, Mesothelioma Lawyer Blog
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