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Hydrolevel Corp. v. American Society of Mechanical Engineers Inc.

decided: November 24, 1980.


Appeal from a judgment entered on a jury verdict in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York, Weinstein, Judge, holding appellant, American Society of Mechanical Engineers, liable for conspiracy to restrain trade and awarding appellee, Hydrolevel Corporation, damages trebled to $7.5 million. Affirmed in part; reversed and remanded in part.

Before Lumbard, Friendly and Meskill, Circuit Judges.

Author: Lumbard

The American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) appeals from a judgment of $7.5 million, entered in the Eastern District of New York on February 14, 1979, Judge Weinstein presiding. The jury found that ASME had participated in a conspiracy to restrain trade in violation of § 1 of the Sherman Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1, and assessed damages at $3.3 million. Judge Weinstein deducted from that figure $800,000 paid in settlement by other defendants and then trebled the remainder, awarding total damages of $7.5 million. We affirm the judgment of liability on a theory different from that of the district court, and remand for a new trial on damages, with instructions regarding the treatment of the settlement payments and the assessment of legal fees.


ASME is a tax-exempt technical and scientific society founded in 1880 and based in New York. It has more than 90,000 members, drawn from all fields where mechanical engineers are active-including industry, academia, insurance and government-and has an annual operating budget of over $12 million. It conducts educational and research programs, publishes a national magazine devoted to mechanical engineering, and, principally important to this case, promulgates over 400 codes and standards. Those codes have great influence in the profession and the marketplace. Indeed, they have been incorporated by reference into federal, state, and local laws and regulations.*fn1 Although ASME employs a full-time staff, much of its work is done by volunteers from its membership who participate in ASME as individuals, not as representatives of their employers. Over 10,000 such volunteers participate in the many ASME committees and sub-committees that draft, revise, and interpret ASME's codes. The question in this appeal is whether ASME is liable for the restraint of trade that resulted when two of its highly placed volunteers caused it to issue a misinterpretation of one such code so as to frustrate competition at the expense of Hydrolevel Corporation.

At all relevant times, the Boiler and Pressure Vessel Code set standards for the performance of various components of steam and water boilers and pressure vessels. Section IV of the Code set standards specifically for components of heating boilers, including a device whose name wholly describes its function: the low-water fuel cut-off. If the water inside a boiler drops below a level that is sufficient to moderate the boiler's temperature, the boiler will "dry fire" and can explode. A low-water fuel cut-off cuts off fuel to the boiler, and thus stops it, when the water reaches a certain low point. To ensure that the cut-off operates before the water reaches a dangerously low level, Paragraph HG-605 of Section IV of the Code required that each boiler "have an automatic low-water fuel cut-off so located as to automatically cut off the fuel supply when the surface of the water falls to the lowest visible part of the water-gauge glass" attached to the outside of the boiler.

The leading manufacturer of cut-offs for the last fifty years has been McDonnel & Miller, Inc. (M&M), of Chicago, which annually makes 70%-85% of the sales of "float" cut-offs. The literal nomenclature of this area of mechanical engineering almost wholly explains function: when water in the boiler falls to the critical level, a floating bulb falling with the water trips a switch mechanically linked to the bulb and thus cuts off the fuel. Hydrolevel began in 1965 to manufacture and market a "probe" cut-off which, as its name suggests, penetrates into the water in the boiler. So long as water covers an electrode in the probe, a completed electrical circuit will cause fuel to flow to the boiler; when the water drops below the probe, the circuit is broken and the fuel stops.

Without entering the engineering debate over which kind of cut-off is better, an obviously irrelevant question in this appeal, it must be said that neither was flawless. The one flaw that is relevant was that found in the probe cut-off: because boiling water bubbles and surges inside the boiler, it intermittently falls below the probe and cuts off the fuel although still at a safe level. Hydrolevel therefore incorporated into its probe cut-off a time-delay element that allowed fuel to continue flowing for sixty to ninety seconds after the water fell below the probe. This reduced the fluctuations in the fuel supply caused by bubbling and surging, but still cut off the fuel before the boiler could dry fire if the water actually fell to a critically low point.

In early 1971, a major purchaser of cut-offs, Brooklyn Union Gas Co., had decided to change to Hydrolevel's time-delay probe after years of purchasing M& M's float. At the same time, M&M arranged to use ASME code interpretation procedures to stifle Hydrolevel's competition. John W. James, the Vice-President in charge of Research at M&M, was the Vice-Chairman of the Section IV Subcommittee of ASME which drafted, revised, and interpreted Section IV of the Boiler and Pressure Vessel Code. The Chairman of the Subcommittee was T. R. Hardin, an Executive Vice-President of Hartford Steam Boiler Inspection and Insurance Company (Hartford), the country's leading underwriter of boiler insurance.*fn2 In March 1971 James and Hardin, along with James Solon, the President of M&M, and Eugene Mitchell, its Vice-President of Sales, decided to send to the Boiler and Pressure Vessel Committee a letter inquiring whether a cut-off with a time-delay met the standard of Paragraph HG-605. James and Hardin drafted a letter of inquiry that they believed would elicit a negative answer. On April 12, Mitchell signed the letter and sent it to W. Bradford Hoyt, the Secretary of the Boiler and Pressure Vessel Committee, who was a full-time ASME officer. The letter asked, after paraphrasing Paragraph HG-605:

Is it the intent of this statement that the cut-off operate immediately when the boiler water level falls to the lowest visible part of the water-gauge glass, or is it permissible to incorporate a time-delay feature in the cut-off so that it will operate after the boiler water level reaches some point below the visible range of the gauge glass?

As Secretary of the Boiler and Pressure Vessel Committee, Hoyt processed such written inquiries according to § 8 of the Boiler and Pressure Vessel Committee Procedure. Many inquiries could be answered with form letters authorized in § 8.01. For inquiries that could not be answered by a form reply, § 8.02 provided that the "Secretary shall immediately refer such matters to the Chairman of the proper Subcommittee or to a Special Committee appointed by the Chairman or Vice-Chairman in cases where no other procedure is evident." The April 12 inquiry from M&M could not be answered with one of the form letters under § 8.01, so Hoyt referred it under § 8.02 to Hardin, the "Chairman of the proper Subcommittee."

ASME's procedures then put Hardin in unsupervised control of its response to the inquiry. Under § 8.02, an inquiry that could "be answered by direct reference to the Code" would receive an "unofficial communication" from ASME. In such instances, "the subcommittee or special committee chairman shall outline the reply to be sent by the Secretary." An inquiry that could not be answered with an unofficial communication would receive, under the other subsections of § 8.02, the attention of the entire subcommittee. Hardin, however, treated the April 12 inquiry as one requiring only an unofficial communication and, accordingly, only his attention. ASME provided no review of Hardin's discretion to respond unofficially to the inquiry. He drafted a reply and sent it to Hoyt, who on April 29 sent an answer to Mitchell, which in pertinent part stated as follows:

A low-water fuel cut-off is considered strictly as a safety device and not as some kind of an operating control. Assuming that the water gauge glass is located in accordance with the requirements of Par. HG-602(b), it is the intent of Par. HG-605(a) that the low-water fuel cut-off operate immediately and positively when the boiler water level falls to the lowest visible part of the water gauge glass.

There are many and varied designs of heating boilers. If a time delay feature were incorporated in a low-water fuel cut-off, there would be no positive assurance that the boiler water level would not fall to a dangerous point during a time delay period.

The second paragraph of this letter does not follow from the first. Whether a cut-off with a time-delay will assure that the water level will not fall dangerously low during the delay depends upon where on the boiler the cut-off is positioned vis-a-vis the water-gauge glass. If the cut-off is positioned sufficiently above the lowest permissible water level, a cut-off with a time-delay could assure, even allowing for the delay, that the fuel supply would stop by the time the water fell to the lowest visible part of the water-gauge glass. The letter's first paragraph takes the distance between the cut-off and water-gauge glass into account by referring to Paragraph HG-602(b), which sets the location of the water-gauge glass on the boiler. The second paragraph does not take that distance into account and therefore draws its misleading conclusion.

Despite that failure in logic, the ASME answer proved to be valuable M&M propaganda. M&M included a copy of the April 29 answer in its booklet entitled "The Opposition-Who They Are, How to Beat Them," which M&M distributed to its salesmen. Further, a message from Mitchell in the booklet described Hydrolevel's cut-off and its time-delay and stated:

A time-delay of any kind in the firing device circuitry would very definitely be against the ASME Code which clearly stipulates the firing device must be shut down at the lowest visible portion of the gauge glass. A time delay would defeat the intent of the ASME Code and this should definitely be brought to the attention of anyone ...

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