$1.5 million in damages reversed in asbestos case Appeals Court disallows punitive award to widow

August 29, 1996|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

The Court of Appeals yesterday threw out $1.5 million in punitive damages awarded the widow of a Curtis Bay shipyard mechanic who died of cancer after working with asbestos -- the second such award reversed by the court in less than a year.

The state's highest court ruled there was insufficient evidence to prove that Owens Corning Fiberglass Corp. (OCF) showed "actual malice" in supplying asbestos-laden materials for the Coast Guard cutters that Harvey L. Scruggs worked on from 1968 to 1972.

Scruggs won compensatory and punitive damages when he sued Owens Corning and several asbestos companies in Baltimore Circuit Court after he was diagnosed in 1992 with mesothelioma, a form of lung cancer caused by asbestos exposure.

But Judge Robert L. Karwacki said that to win punitives damages, Scrugg's lawyers had to show that Owens Corning knew of and disregarded the deadly nature of Kaylo, the material used as insulation in ships' boilers and engine rooms.

"While the company officials were aware of the potential dangers of asbestos if mishandled, they were not convinced that Kaylo, which contained only 15 percent asbestos carried the same risks," Karwacki wrote for the 4-3 majority.

The dissenting judges said there was ample evidence for the Baltimore Circuit Court jury to conclude that OCF blatantly disregarded worker safety and that it should be slapped with punitive damages.

"What OCF did, it did in the name of maximizing profits and with very little, if any, regard for anything else," wrote Judge Robert M. Bell, who was joined by Judges Irma S. Raker and Howard S. Chasanow.

The court unanimously affirmed the jury's $3.5 million compensatory damage award to Scruggs' estate against Owens-Corning and Porter-Hayden Co., another asbestos company.

The court also let stand million-dollar compensatory damage awards to the estates of three other plaintiffs, Ralph D. Garrett, a former shipyard worker and electrician; Norman J. Hannon Jr., a steamfitter; and William Hohman, a former laborer and safety inspector.

Scruggs, 45, died June 22, 1994, three months after he testified and roughly a month before the trial ended.

When Scruggs appeared in Judge Edward J. Angeletti's courtroom, the once-strapping, 205-pound ship's mechanic -Z weighed 145 pounds, was in a wheelchair and needed oxygen pumped through a plastic tube into his nose to help him breathe.

Lenora Scruggs, his widow, said yesterday she was disappointed at the reversal of the punitive damages award, but "relieved that it's finally over."

Pub Date: 8/29/96

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