According to the Association of Corporate Counsel’s Lexology blog, plaintiffs in New York City suing for relief on wrongful deaths caused by asbestos will be able to seek punitive damages. Punitive damages for New York City cases, which are handled on a separate dockets, were deferred in 1998 until such a time as the court deemed appropriate. The theory was that it would not be fair to seek such damages for wrongs committed decades ago, sometimes by predecessor companies. Seeking punitive damages would drain funds that might otherwise be used to compensate victims for actual injuries, would serve no corrective purpose, and would subject companies to repeated punishments for the same offense.
The argument by the plaintiffs to lift the deferral noted that punitive damages for asbestos suits are permitted in other counties in New York outside New York City and in other states. Therefore the deferral is constitutionally and ethically suspect. Allowing punitive damages would encourage defending companies to settle.
New York Supreme Court Judge Sherry Klein Heitler ruled for the plaintiffs, but offered a number of caveats. She noted that punitive damages were only appropriate when the defendant display a large degree of “moral turpitude” going beyond simple intent. They were have to have demonstrated a criminal disregard for their civil obligations and a wanton degree of dishonesty. Thus Judge Heitler suggested that cases in which punitive damages would be appropriate would be rare. She cautioned plaintiffs to not “overstep” in regards to seeking punitive damages.
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