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Fischer v. Johns-Manville Corporations

Decided: January 31, 1984.


On appeal from the Superior Court, Law Division, Union County.

Botter, Pressler and O'Brien. The opinion of the court was delivered by Pressler, J.A.D.


This is a strict liability case. Defendants, suppliers of asbestos materials, appeal from a jury verdict awarding compensatory and punitive damages to plaintiff James R. Fischer for the pulmonary disease he suffered as a result of his prolonged exposure to asbestos and awarding compensatory damages to his wife, plaintiff Geneva Fischer, on her per quod claim. The primary issue raised on this appeal is whether punitive damages are recoverable in a products liability action tried on principles of strict liability. Although New Jersey has not yet considered this question, it has been recently addressed by many of our sister states, all of which have concluded that there is no fundamental conceptual or public policy bar to application of customary punitive damages principles in these actions. We agree with this conclusion. We are also satisfied that the punitive damages verdict here rested upon an adequate evidential base and proper instructions from the trial judge. Accordingly, the verdict is affirmed.

By the time trial commenced, this multi-party, multi-issue litigation had been significantly reduced in scope. The sole remaining plaintiffs were the Fischers and the sole issue on which they elected to proceed was strict liability based on defendants' failure to warn of health hazards related to exposure to asbestos. The number of defendants had been reduced to three: Johns-Manville,*fn1 Bell Asbestos Mines, Ltd. (Bell), and

Celotex Corporation. The claims against Celotex were dismissed at the close of plaintiffs' case, and the verdict was returned against Johns-Manville and Bell alone. The compensatory verdicts in favor of Mr. and Mrs. Fischer, in the total amount of $86,000 and $5,000 respectively, were apportioned by the jury on the basis of 80% against Johns-Manville and 20% against Bell. In addition, the jury awarded Mr. Fischer punitive damages against Johns-Manville in the amount of $240,000 and against Bell in the amount of $60,000.

From the proofs, the jury could have found that plaintiff James Fischer worked for Asbestos, Ltd. in Passaic County from 1938 through the end of 1942 and for an additional four-month period in 1945. His duties required him to handle asbestos in various forms, causing him regularly to inhale asbestos dust. He never wore any protective clothing or apparatus and was never given any cautionary warning or instruction in the safe handling of asbestos either by his employer or by the suppliers of the asbestos materials, who were identified at trial as Johns-Manville and Bell. After leaving Asbestos, Ltd., plaintiff was employed both in farm work and in other industrial employments, none of which involved exposure to substances deleterious to the lungs.

Mr. Fischer's pulmonary disease first manifested itself in 1977 when it was determined that he was suffering from asbestos-related problems. He was placed on medication which ultimately led to such side effects as diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis and osteoporosis. In 1979 he was hospitalized suffering from bronchitis with borderline pneumonia but was eventually able to return to work. In February 1980 he had a heart attack and has been unable to work since that time. He was then 61 years old. His total disability was attributed by his treating physician as 30% due to chronic obstructive lung disease due to smoking, 60%

due to asbestos exposure and the side effects of the medication he took to alleviate those pulmonary problems, and 10% due to the heart condition.

There is no doubt from this record that plaintiff proved a strict liability action against both defendants based on their failure to warn of the hazards of prolonged exposure to asbestos. See Beshada v. Johns-Manville Products Corp., 90 N.J. 191 (1982). Thus, the compensatory damages award is not substantially in issue. Johns-Manville does not challenge it at all, and we are satisfied that Bell's challenges, hereafter discussed, are without substantial merit.

It was the holding of Beshada that a supplier of asbestos could not, by relying on the "state of the art," be relieved of the consequences of his failure to warn because of his lack of knowledge of the danger of the product at the time of its distribution. Here the issue was not state of the art but actual knowledge, the essential controversy being whether these defendants did in fact have knowledge of the hazards of asbestos during the time of plaintiff's exposure some 45 years ago. Plaintiffs based their punitive damage claim on the contention that defendants knew of these hazards as early as the 1930's and had made a conscious business decision to withhold this information from the public. They claimed that defendants, with full knowledge of the risks, deliberately chose not to give those warnings to users of the product which might have enabled them to obtain protection from prolonged exposure. This conduct, plaintiffs alleged, constituted an outrageous and flagrant disregard of the substantial health risks to which defendants subjected the public and justified the imposition of punitive damages. The jury evidently agreed. Our review of the record satisfies us that there was substantial proof adduced to support these factual contentions and the jury's acceptance of them.

The proofs respecting Johns-Manville were, indeed, overwhelming. Johns-Manville, in its answers to interrogatories, which were read to the jury, admitted that

[t]he corporation became aware of the relationship between asbestos and the disease known as asbestosis among workers involved in mining, milling and manufacturing operations and exposed to high levels of virtually 100% raw asbestos fibers over long periods of time by the early 1930s. The corporation has followed and become aware of the general state of the medical art relative to asbestos and its relationship to disease processes, if any.

In response to plaintiffs' requests for admissions, also read to the jury, it admitted that in the early 1940's it knew that asbestos "was dangerous to the health" of those industrial workers who were exposed to excessive amounts of the material. Plaintiffs, moreover, produced as a witness Dr. Daniel C. Braun, president of the Industrial Health Foundation, a research organization which develops, accumulates and disseminates information about occupational diseases. Dr. Braun testified that Johns-Manville has been a member of the Foundation since 1936. He also testified that since 1937 the Foundation has sent to its members a monthly digest of articles appearing in scientific journals which relate to occupational disease. Relevant portions of the digests, which were admitted into evidence, included references to eleven scientific articles published between 1936 and 1941 documenting the grave pulmonary hazards of exposure to asbestos and discussing measures which could be taken to protect workers. Plaintiffs also proved that as early as 1933 claims were being made against Johns-Manville by asbestos workers, and in November of that year the Executive Committee of its Board of Directors passed a resolution authorizing the president of the corporation

In December of that year high-level representatives of Johns-Manville met with officials of Raybestos-Manhattan, another major asbestos supplier, to discuss steps which the industry as a whole might take to reduce employee risk. It appears, however, that Johns-Manville never did arrange for or participate in any

industry-wide meetings on the subject. The minutes of that 1933 meeting also confirm the participants' view that at least for the time being "our past policy of keeping this matter confidential is to be pursued."

Perhaps most damning of all is the so-called Sumner Simpson correspondence of 1935 and 1941. Simpson was president of Raybestos. In October 1935, he received a letter from a Miss Rossiter, editor of the trade periodical Asbestos, suggesting that despite Simpson's earlier requests, made "for certain obvious reasons," that articles relating to asbestosis not be published, perhaps the time had come to print a positive article about industry efforts to reduce the risk in order "to combat some of the rather undesirable publicity given to it [asbestosis] in current newspapers." Simpson thereupon sent a copy of the letter to Johns-Manville's secretary, Vandiver Brown, expressing his opinion that "the less said about asbestos, the better off we are." Brown's reply stated in part:

I quite agree with you that our interests are best served by having asbestosis receive the minimum of publicity. Even if we should eventually decide to raise no objection to the publication of an article on asbestosis in the magazine in question, I think we should warn the editors to use American data on the subject rather than English. Dr. Lanza has frequently remarked, to me personally and in some of his papers, that the clinical picture presented in North American ...

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