March 5, 2015: The current New York asbestos litigation landscape is changing. There are approximately 3,101 active cases pending in New York City Asbestos Litigation (“NYCAL”), ongoing negotiations on the Case Management Order (“CMO”) which seeks to change the current New York City asbestos litigation procedures and a sharp increase in the number of asbestos-related commercials on television. One of the most significant changes is the inclusion of punitive damages as a viable remedy for plaintiffs. Since 1996, New York City asbestos litigation has been the only jurisdiction in New York State in which plaintiffs have been unable to recover punitive damages from defendants.

The April 8, 2014 Decision and Order by Judge Sherry Klein Heitler, however, changed that. The Court reasoned that there is no justifiable reason to continue to deny NYCAL plaintiffs the opportunity to seek punitive damages which would be afforded to the plaintiff in the other counties of the State of New York. To continue to deny punitive damages would be “overlook[ing] serious constitutional equal protection concerns,” stated Judge Heitler.  This April 8, 2014 Decision ended over a decade of asbestos litigation without punitive damages.

Defendants recently moved for leave to renew and reargue the April 8, 2014 Decision, as well as to stay the application of the Decision and Order until proper protocols can be established to govern the remedy of punitive damages in New York City. Judge Heitler, however, was unpersuaded by the defendants’ collective arguments that the April 8, 2014 Decision led to indiscriminate requests for punitive damages by plaintiffs in all NYCAL cases, chaos and confusion among the trial judges and parties causing inconsistent and divergent rulings, and violations of defendants’ due process rights. The Court denied defendants’ motion for leave to renew and reargue the April 8, 2014 decision. The Court further ruled that that a stay is inappropriate because it permits an indefinite continuation of the status quo without impetus to the parties to negotiate substantive changes to the CMO and a protocol governing punitive damages claims.

With the application of the April 8, 2014 decision on punitive damages and appeals of the Decision, recent record-breaking asbestos verdicts, and ongoing negotiations to revise the CMO for asbestos litigation in New York City, this is not the end of the punitive damages’ discussion. Instead, this marks a significant turning point in the NYCAL landscape. 

For more information on asbestos litigation in New York, please contact John Renzulli.