On appeal from the Superior Court, Law Division, Camden County, following an order of the Supreme Court, whose opinion is recorded at 101 N.J. 161.
Dreier, Baime and Ashbey. The opinion of the court was delivered by Ashbey, J.A.D.
This appeal arises out of a Law Division trial following a remand from the Supreme Court. See Millison v. E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Co., 101 N.J. 161 (1985). There the Court held that the New Jersey Workers' Compensation Act, N.J.S.A. 34:15-1 et seq, precluded plaintiffs from maintaining a separate tort action against their employer E.I. du Pont de Nemours and Co. (du Pont) and its physicians for failure to warn plaintiffs of the known risks of asbestos and their resulting asbestos-related medical conditions. The Court further held, however, that the exclusive remedy of N.J.S.A. 34:15-8 did not bar plaintiffs' tort claims for aggravation of those conditions, to the extent that such aggravation resulted from defendants' fraudulent concealment of them.
Following a five-week trial concerning those claims, a jury rendered verdicts in plaintiffs' favor;*fn1 the jury awarded compensatory damages for the following asserted periods of concealment as follows:
Plaintiffs Amount Against Asserted period of
Defendants Concealment by de-
William Millison $25,000 du Pont and 1974-1979
Marie Millison 6,250 Dr. Neeld
Edward Agar 20,000 Dr. Neeld 1975-1979
Vernon Kronmaier 60,000 du Pont and 1965-1977
Dorothy Kronmaier 15,000 Dr. Reichwein
Susan Schwebel 20,000 Dr. Reichwein 1971-1975
Clarence Schwebel 10,000 Dr. Reichwein 1976-1978
Frank Baptiste 15,000 Dr. Reichwein 1970-1972-73
The jury awarded punitive damages of $200,000 respecting each plaintiff employee. Total damages awarded were $1,382,500.
Defendants' motions for judgment n.o.v. or, alternatively, for a new trial, were denied. Defendants appeal from the ensuing judgment and from the denial of their motions, contending that the verdicts were unsupported by the evidence, and were the product of improper evidentiary admissions.
Plaintiffs are all past or present employees at two du Pont New Jersey plants, Chambers Works and Repauno. Each plant contained extensive piping which was insulated with asbestos-containing material. Millison, Agar, C. Schwebel and H. Schwebel worked as pipecoverers or "laggers," installing and removing pipe and tank insulation. Kronmaier and Baptiste were pipefitters. They installed, repaired and removed the underlying pipes. In so doing, they removed old insulation from pipes.
Each plaintiff, therefore, worked with and around asbestos-containing material on a frequent basis during relevant time periods. Each plaintiff received annual or semi-annual physical examinations and chest x-rays from du Pont's doctors. Each received notices from these doctors describing the state of his health following these examinations. At relevant times defendant Dr. Neeld was the medical director at Chambers Works and defendant Dr. Reichwein was a plant doctor at Repauno.
Plaintiffs proffered three experts at trial. Dr. Joseph Wagoner, an expert in epidemiology and in the development of knowledge of asbestos-related diseases; Dr. Auerbach, an expert in asbestos-related disease, and Dr. Sokolowski, an expert in pulmonary medicine. Dr. Miller, an expert in radiology, and Dr. Epstein, an expert in pulmonology, were the only witnesses for defendants. All of the experts acknowledged that, judged by modern medical knowledge, plaintiffs' past x-rays demonstrated asbestos-related conditions. The most common symptom was thickening of the pleura, or membrane covering the surface of the lung. Plaintiffs' experts testified that evidence of pleural thickening (or pleural plaque if localized) in plaintiffs' x-rays at relevant times should have alerted defendant doctors to the presence of asbestos-related conditions and that continued exposure to asbestos aggravated the condition. Defendants' experts, on the other hand, said that evidence of pleural changes did not justify a diagnosis of an asbestos-related condition at relevant times. It was Miller's opinion that, although many radiologists knew in the 1950s that asbestos exposure caused interstitial lung disease, radiologists did not associate pleural plaque or thickening with asbestos exposure until 1977 and 1978. Defendant's experts further gave the opinion that, once an asbestos-related condition was incurred, deterioration was inevitable and not related to further exposure. That underlying difference of expert opinion was related to each plaintiff's particularized claim.
William Millison was employed almost continuously at du Pont's Chambers Works plant from 1953 to the time of trial. Millison's 1974 du Pont x-rays demonstrated to the experts asbestos-related changes if judged by 1987 medical knowledge. He worked under further asbestos exposure between 1974 and 1979. Following each du Pont physical examination, he, in accord with undisputed du Pont procedure (applicable to all plaintiffs), received written notice that he suffered from no relevant medical problem and was fit for continued asbestos-related work.
In 1979, du Pont sent Millison's x-ray history to be read by outside radiologist specialists.*fn2 Three months after these 1979 x-rays, du Pont scheduled Millison for additional x-rays at the request of the outside radiologist. Millison testified that this made him suspicious that du Pont was hiding something from him. He therefore consulted his own pulmonary specialist, Dr. Morowitz, who informed Millison that he had asbestosis and advised him not to work in any asbestos environment. At Neeld's request, Neeld and Millison met. When Millison told Neeld what Morowitz said, Neeld said that Millison did not have asbestosis because he did not have all the "symptoms." Neeld refused to recommend that Millison be removed from his work assignment so long as he used available protective equipment. Millison testified that when he asked for a transfer, Neeld said "If I do it for you, I've got to do it for everybody." Millison testified, "He told me that the company was going to take care of me. So when I asked him how they were going to take care of me, . . . he said the company was going to pay my burial expenses." Neeld's August 13, 1979 letter identified Millison
as having "benign asymptomatic abnormalities" based upon pleural thickening "as identified in May 1979." He there described Millison as a "lifetime . . . lagger [who] had the ...