Washington Supreme Court Affirms That Expiration of the Statute of Limitations on Personal Injury Claims Bar Subsequent Wrongful Death Action

Gavel and old clockOn October 6, 2016, the Washington Supreme Court held that the expiration of a personal injury claim during the injured party’s lifetime similarly bars any wrongful death action based on the same injury.  Deggs v. Asbestos Corp. Ltd., No. 91969-1, ___ Wn.2d ___ (Oct. 6, 2015).  The Court followed stare decisis to affirm the trial court’s order granting summary judgment for all defendants on grounds that the running of the limitations period on a decedent’s personal injury claim prior to death also operated to bar the personal representative from bringing a claim under the state wrongful death statute.  The Court expressly declined to overrule several prior Washington Supreme cases adopting such a rule.

Background Facts

Decedent Roy Sundberg was exposed to asbestos while working for various employers from 1942 to 1989.  After being diagnosed with multiple diseases, Mr. Sundberg and his wife filed an asbestos lawsuit against numerous defendants in 1999.  In 2001, their claims were tried to verdict in which the jury awarded plaintiffs over $1.5 million in damages.  Respondent Judy Deggs, the Sundbergs’ daughter, did not file her own claim even though Washington recognizes claims for loss of parental consortium.

Mr. Sundberg died in 2010.  In 2012, the Sundbergs’ daughter, as the personal representative of the estate, filed a wrongful death against several new defendants and one holdover defendant from the personal injury action.  The 2012 lawsuit asserted liability for the same injuries and asbestos exposure as the 1999 lawsuit.

In 2013, the trial court granted summary judgment for all defendants on grounds that both the wrongful death action and survival action were barred by the expiration of the statute of limitations on the decedent’s underlying claims against the defendants.  In doing so, the trial relied on Washington Supreme Court precedent holding that while wrongful death actions generally accrue at the time of death, Washington has recognized a “well-recognized limitation” that “there must be a subsisting cause of action in the deceased” at the time of death and that “the action for wrongful death is extinguished” in cases when the deceased either previously released the personal injury claims, obtained a judgment, or failed to “bring an action for injuries within the period of limitation.”  Grant v. Fisher Flouring Mills Co., 181 Wash. 576, 580-81, 44 P.2d 193 (1935); Calhoun v. Washington Veneer Co., 170 Wash. 152, 159-60, 15 P.2d 943 (1932); Johnson v. Ottomeier, 45 Wn.2d 419, 422-23, 275 P.2d 723 (1954).  In 2015, the Washington Court of Appeals affirmed in a 2-1 decision.[1]  Deggs v. Asbestos Corp. Ltd., 188 Wn. App. 495, 354 P.3d 1 (2005).  The Washington Supreme Court granted review.

The Court’s Analysis

In a 5-4 decision, the Washington Supreme Court applied stare decisis and refused to overturn the long-standing precedent establishing that the right to a wrongful death action remained predicated on the deceased having a valid cause of action at the time of death.  The Court first examined the lengthy history of cases like Grant and Calhoun in which it had relied on Lord Campbell’s Act to recognize that various acts or omissions by injured parties during their lifetime may limit or extinguish their heirs from maintaining a subsequent wrongful death action.

While acknowledging that the Court in its present composition may have reached different results if the issue on appeal was a question of first impression, the Court held that the requirements for abandoning stare decisis were not met in this case.  Specifically, the Court concluded that there was no “clear showing” that the prior decisions were harmful.  The Court reasoned that it was not faced with a case where the deceased “was prevented from bringing a personal injury claim within the statute of limitations” before death.  “Instead, we are faced with a case where the deceased knew of the injury, sued, and either settled with or won against all the named defendants.”  Thus, the Court concluded that because the deceased and his heirs had the knowledge and opportunity to bring a personal injury claim against the defendants during his lifetime, there was no clear showing that the prior precedent was harmful.

The Court contrasted the lack of harm to the plaintiffs to the “considerable harm on settled expectations if we were to abandon the rule from Lord Campbell’s Act now” because “[m]any entities that reasonably relied upon our precedent to close the book on potential claims based on the passage of the underlying statute of limitations would now find themselves subject to potential liability based on a court opinions they were not parties to.”  It also distinguished the situation in which the cause of death was not known until after the decedent had passed away because those cases would fall under Washington’s discovery rule, which would effectively toll the statute of limitations on any personal injury claims until after death.

The Court further cited the legislative’s acquiescence in the prior decisions by noting that the legislature had subsequently amended the wrongful death statute several times without changing the statute to supersede the Court’s prior holdings on this issue. Finally, the Court noted that the legal underpinnings for the prior decisions had not changed or disappeared altogether.

The dissent focused on the lack of language in the wrongful death statute expressly conditioning the right to bring a wrongful death claim on the existence of a valid personal injury claim, as well as the perceived unfairness of extinguishing a wrongful death cause of action before it could accrue upon the injured party’s death.


In practical terms, the majority of the Court did not want to undo a long-established rule of law requiring the existence of a valid personal injury cause of action at the time of death in order for a wrongful death action to proceed.  The Court recognized that under such circumstances, there is nothing inherently prejudicial about preventing the heirs from taking a second bite at the apple where the deceased had a full and fair opportunity to bring claims for the same injuries and damages during his or her lifetime. It also should be noted the dissent was unable to articulate how trial courts would be able to set off or segregate settlement amounts and damages awarded in a prior personal injury action from damages sought in the wrongful death action based on the same injuries.  Finally, the Deggs holding should equally apply to prevent a subsequent wrongful death action in cases in which the deceased executed a valid release or obtained a judgment against particular defendants during his or her lifetime.

While Deggs will prevent the resurrection of many old personal injury claims, it is anticipated that the plaintiffs’ bar may seek legislation to amend the wrongful death statute and supersede this ruling.  In other words, stay tuned.

[1] Respondent did not appeal the trial court’s dismissal of the estate’s survivorship claims, as Washington’s survival statute on its face merely preserves existing personal injury claims at the time of death, rather than creating a separate, independent action like the wrongful death statute.  RCW 4.20.046(1); RCW 4.20.060.

No Duty to Prevent Take Home Exposure in Arizona

The Arizona Court of Appeals has held in a case of first impression that an employer has no duty of care to protect family members from asbestos taken home on an employee’s work clothes. Quiroz v. ALCOA Inc., et al., No. 1 CA–CV 15–0083 (9/20/2016).

Background Facts

laundryDr. Ernest V. Quiroz was allegedly exposed during his childhood to asbestos brought home on his father’s work clothes from the Reynolds Metals extrusion plant in Phoenix. Dr. Quiroz left the family home at age 14 to attend seminary high
school in Los Angeles. He gave up plans for the priesthood after meeting the girl he would marry, and instead attended college in Los Angeles and medical school in Michigan before entering practice in Grand Rapids in the 1980s. Dr. Quiroz was diagnosed with mesothelioma in 2013, and died the following year at age 62. Dr. Quiroz testified in his deposition that he never entered the Reynolds Metals extrusion plant, and acknowledged that his only asbestos exposure related to Reynolds Metals would have been from his father’s work clothes. The trial court granted Reynolds Metals’ summary judgment motion based on the lack of duty under Arizona law to an employee’s family members. Plaintiffs timely appealed.

The Court’s Analysis

Dr. Quiroz was a very sympathetic claimant – potential priest, respected doctor, lay leader of his church, devoted husband and father with five children and six grandchildren – and absolutely no occupational or para-occupational exposure. His family and counsel, Waters Kraus & Paul, sought to use this case to extend liability for take-home exposure beyond the limited number of states that have recognized the claim. Acknowledging that there was no “special relationship” between Reynolds Metals and Dr. Quiroz, plaintiffs argued that premises owners such as Reynolds Metals had a duty to protect persons from hazards which foreseeably left their premises based on three main grounds: (1) Restatement (Third) of Torts §7 (imposing a general duty of reasonable care on all persons), (2) Restatement (Third) of Torts §54 (imposing a duty of care on possessors of land “for artificial conditions or conduct on the land that poses a risk of physical harm to persons or property not on the land”), and (3) “public policy.”

The Court of Appeals rejected each of plaintiffs’ arguments and affirmed the trial court’s grant of summary judgment. Consistent with the common law around the country, the existence of a duty of care is a pre-requisite for a negligence claim in Arizona. However, the Arizona Supreme Court has steadfastly rejected any consideration of foreseeability in determining the existence of a duty of care. The Quiroz court noted that Arizona had previously declined to adopt any general duty of care such as that in Restatement (Third) of Torts §§7 and 54, and it declined to do so here as well, explaining that doing so would:

substantially change Arizona’s longstanding conceptual approach to negligence law by effectively eliminating duty as one of the required elements of a negligence action. . . . The Third Restatement approach significantly lessens the role of the court as a legal arbiter of whether society should recognize the existence of a duty in particular categories of cases; for this reason, adopting the Third Restatement would increase the expense of litigation.

The court further declined plaintiffs’ invitation to either follow Restatement (Second) of Torts § 371 (imposing on a possessor of land liability for physical harm to others outside of the land caused by an activity thereon which he realizes or should realize will involve an unreasonable risk of physical harm) or to recognize a duty on the part of Reynolds Metals as a landowner to Dr. Quiroz, because those theories do – but Arizona does not – consider foreseeability in determining whether a duty of care exists.

Quiroz also rejected plaintiffs’ argument that public policy supported imposing a duty of care, in part because plaintiffs offered no statutory or common law basis for the public policy beyond the Restatement sections discussed (and rejected) above. The court also rebuffed Plaintiff’s argument that “any property owner could reasonably expect that a lack of due care in handling toxins on its premises, resulting in off-premises injury, could lead to liability,” which the court saw this as putting the cart before the horse: “A finding of a duty of care must come before considering whether Reynolds exercised due care.” The court further questioned where the dividing line would be if claims by person off-premises were permitted – would they be limited to family members with regular exposure, or could claims be brought by persons with more tangential alleged exposure, and would such an expansion result in unlimited or insurer-like liability? As Quiroz explained, other states around the country which, like Arizona, do not employ foreseeability in their duty analysis have all rejected claims based on take-home exposure for these and other reasons. Because there was no basis under Arizona law for any duty of care on the part of Reynolds Metals to Dr. Quiroz, no negligence claim could be stated and summary judgment was correctly granted.

Although the Arizona Supreme Court has repeatedly addressed the lack of any role of foreseeability in determining the existence of a duty under Arizona law, we anticipate that Plaintiffs will seek review of the Court of Appeals decision here.

After “Roundup” of Evidence, EPA finds Glyphosphate “Not Likely to be Carcinogenic to Humans”

croppyEarlier this month, the EPA issued a position paper regarding the risks of glyphosate.  Notably, in classifying glyphosate’s cancer risk to humans, the EPA states, “The strongest support is for ‘not likely to be carcinogenic to humans’ at doses relevant to human health risk assessment.”

Although the EPA report is not dispositive on the issue and will be followed by with a “final assessment” in early 2017, it is a positive development.  The FIFRA Scientific Advisory Panel of the EPA, much like the European Food Safety Authority, is not accepting the recent IARC position that glyphosate is “probably” carcinogenic to humans.  Consequently, causation in litigation involving glyphosate will remain a challenge for plaintiffs’ firms to establish.

Since the IARC position was issued in 2015, plaintiff’s firms have filed a number of lawsuits in California, Illinois, and New York against Monsanto.  In late July, one plaintiffs’ firm filed a motion requesting that the multidistrict panel be in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Illinois, where three lawsuits are pending. In total, 21 lawsuits have been filed in 14 district courts nationwide naming Monsanto only.  The parties expect a ruling this fall on whether the matters against Monsanto will be consolidated.

Mediation Practice in the Southern District of New York

Over the past 25 years, the use of mediation by courts and litigants has mushroomed. One might well ask whether efforts at establishing mediation norms and standards have been able to keep up with this growth spurt in mediation’s broad acceptance and popularity. There are multiple forums for conducting ADR. Some “mediations” involve little more than counsel, either with or without their clients present, sitting down before an adjuster” in a no frills attempt to bridge the parties’“bid” and “ask”. Other mediators will talk to the parties, either together or separately, for a couple of hours and then, in the absence of a quick agreement, call it quits. Unless counsel is familiar with the practice of a particular mediator or mediation provider, it may be a challenge to correctly forecast for the client what will take place during the mediation session and what, if anything, may be demanded of them.

There are no widely accepted guidelines concerning the qualifications to be a mediator. A retired professional wrestling referee with no formal mediation training could probably hang out a “mediation” shingle at a store front. At least, in that instance, parties could be assured that this mediator would not tolerate hitting below the belt. Hopefully, counsel will have performed diligence concerning the background, qualifications and methodology of the mediator selected. This research should assist counsel in explaining to the client who the mediator is and what his or her qualifications are.

9-16Although some mediators have no doubt engaged in blatant conflict of interest, coercive behavior or outright fraud, these incidents are thankfully infrequent. In a mediation proceeding in which a client is represented by counsel, counsel can simply terminate an improper or abusive mediation by walking out with the client. However, this is probably not what the nervous client wants to hear from the lawyer before the mediation begins.

A Boston University Law Review article by Professor Michael Moffitt, titled “Suing Mediators” [Vol. 83:147, 154 (2003)] observes that “a clear standard of practice for mediators is difficult to identify. Mediation is a fragmented occupation, with practitioners varying to tremendous degree in their training and methodology. While some have argued that mediation should be treated as a profession, the lack of coherence in admission and practice standards makes the analogy imperfect at best. Instead, mediators operate under a patchwork of standards, promulgated by a range of practice associations, program administrators, and court systems.”

As more and more cases are referred to court-annexed mediation, courts have come to recognize their responsibility to ensure the quality of the mediation services provided. However, very few of the mediation programs that operate on the state or federal level have implemented any kind of systematic, performance-based competency assessment of their mediators. In the absence of competency assessment, court-annexed mediation programs have tended to rely on past training and experience, and participant feedback (when it is available), to determine whether the mediators on their rosters are doing a good job.

The ADR Program for the SDNY has taken steps to standardize mediation practice in its court-annexed mediation program. A joint pilot project was created by the New York City Bar Association Committee on Alternative Dispute Resolution and the ADR Program for the SDNY to create a mechanism for continued evaluation of mediators once they are added to the SDNY mediation roster. As a result of the project, a protocol was developed for ongoing evaluation of the SDNY’s panel mediators. In the past, mediators have been assigned by court staff on the basis of their having been previously approved by the court to perform court-annexed mediation. The evaluation protocol, which requires live observation and evaluation of the mediator during a mediation, went into effect in January 2016. Even mediators who have been conducting court-annexed mediations for many years will be subject to evaluation. The SDNY may be the only federal district court that presently conducts ongoing observation and evaluation of court-annexed mediators.

An intrinsic challenge to developing an evaluation protocol is determining what skillsets make for a good mediator in the first instance. For example, is there a place in the mediation room for the mediator to use pushing and prodding? Is there a point when pushing and prodding may be viewed by the participants (or by the evaluator) as coercion? As the planning for the SDNY protocol progressed, project participants identified different components of the mediation process to evaluate.

In identifying these components, however, the ADR Program for the SDNY was more or less communicating to its corps of 300 volunteer mediators that a certain mediation “process” was expected to be adhered to. For example, the components of the process that would be evaluated include: (1) the pre-mediation conference call with counsel; (2) the mediator’s opening statement; (3) the joint session and (4) exploring facts/interests and developing opinions.

The formalization of this checklist made several implicit assumptions about how a mediation should be conducted. First, that a pre-mediation conference call was a good idea and that it was helpful to discuss the mediator’s expectations during that call; second, that the mediator would give an opening statement at the mediation; and third, that the mediator would conduct a joint session with all participants present at the mediation rather than move directly into private caucuses.

Within the protocol’s rubric, there is certainly flexibility to permit the mediators to “do their own thing” at the mediation without the risk of receiving a failing grade from the mediator evaluator. For example, some mediators request that counsel for the parties each make an opening statement in the joint session before private caucuses take place. Some do not use this practice. Some mediators will caucus first with the plaintiff; others prefer to meet first with the defendant. But minor variations aside, a lawyer for a party required to attend a mediation in the SDNY should know what to expect. Far from the Boston University Law Review’s dour assessment of the state of the mediation art in 2003, considerable progress has been made in standardizing mediation practice. Lawyers who have been directed to mediation by the SDNY Mediation Office should be able to provide their clients a solid roadmap of they may expect during the mediation.

Property Seller’s Failure to Disclose Environmental Cleanup Actionable, Even For “As Is” Sale

On August 18, 2016, a New Jersey appellate court ruled that a property seller’s failure to disclose environmental contamination and cleanup could expose the seller to liability for fraud. In Catena v. Raytheon Co. the Appellate Division reversed a trial court’s decision which had granted summary judgment based on the statute of limitations. The Appellate Division found that the “discovery rule” applied to claims asserting fraud and that Catena, the purchaser of commercial property, was not time barred in his lawsuit which was brought more than a decade after his purchase. The “discovery rule” delays the commencement of the limitations period, i.e., a plaintiff’s claim does not accrue until the plaintiff discovers, or by an exercise of reasonable diligence and intelligence should have discovered that he may have a basis for an action claim. In a real estate setting, intentional nondisclosure of a material defect which is not observable by a Buyer can give rise to a finding of fraud by the Seller and the statute of limitations will not bar a suit many years after the sale if the Buyer, after appropriate due diligence, had no reason to know of the defect.

9-13In this case, the Seller, individually or through his partnership, owned the property since 1983. When the Seller defaulted on its mortgage in 1987, Seller’s mortgage lender (“Lender”) took possession of the property and began making efforts for its sale. Lender engaged a consultant to take soil samples; it was discovered that the property was contaminated with perchloroethylene (“PCE”). In June 1988, the Lender and Seller arranged for the excavation and removal of the known contaminated soil. The environmental consultant specifically warned that it could not guarantee that all the contaminated soil had been removed. Neither the Lender, the Seller, nor the environmental consultant notified the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (“NJDEP”) of the contamination.

Catena entered into a contract to purchase the property “as is” later in June 1988. There were no representations or warranties made by the Seller. On the day before the closing, the Lender provided Catena’s attorney with a 1987 affidavit submitted to the NJDEP which stated that, on information and belief, the only occupants on the site had been a dry wall construction contractor, a bank, and a trucking concern, and that they had not engaged in operations which involved hazardous substances. This form affidavit was commonly used in the 1980s to demonstrate the non-applicability of the Environmental Cleanup Responsibility Act (“ECRA”), a statute that required remediation prior to property transfers in certain circumstances. The Seller also provided Catena with a copy of the 1988 affidavit that Seller submitted to the NJDEP which included the same information as the Lender’s affidavit. This later submission was to confirm that the sale to Catena was not subject to ECRA. Neither affidavit mentioned the discovery of contamination or the soil removal that had been undertaken.

After the closing of title in November 1988, Catena retained a consultant to perform an environmental assessment which found that the past uses of the property were far more extensive than those stated in the affidavits, including production of aircraft parts, assembly of mechanical electrical parts, a textile knitting and dyeing operation, the manufacture of prefabricated exterior building facades, and a distribution center for screen-printing inks and related supplies. These prior uses would likely have caused the sale to Catena to require compliance with the ECRA statute. The Assessment recommended that Catena investigate the possible presence of contamination, but Catena did not investigate. Instead, nearly ten years later when Catena sought to refinance the property, his prospective lender hired a consultant to conduct an investigation. That investigation found PCE contamination, which it reported to the NJDEP. The consultant opined that the likely cause of the contamination was the historical use of the property in airplane-related industries.

Beginning in 1998, Catena proceeded with a robust but intermittent investigation of his property. In the early 2000s, groundwater and stream contamination was discovered.

Catena sued the Seller, and the prior owners and operators of the property, including those who likely caused the PCE contamination, pursuant to the NJ Spill Act. Through discovery in the litigation, Catena obtained reports and communications between the Seller and the Lender concerning the partial cleanup of soil that they had performed but did not tell him about. Catena amended his complaint to assert claims of common law fraud and violations of the Consumer Fraud Act against the Seller and Lender. Catena testified at his deposition that he did not know of the contamination before his purchase and admitted that he did not ask the Seller or Lender whether there were any environmental issues. He also did not investigate the past uses of the property prior to the purchase.

The Seller and Lender moved for summary judgment with regard to the fraud claims, alleging that more than six years (the statute of limitations for fraud claims) had passed since these claims accrued. The trial court agreed with the Seller, finding that Catena should have been aware of the fraud when he entered into an administrative agreement with the NJDEP in June 1998 to conduct the investigation of his property. Catena appealed, arguing that the fraud was not discovered until December 2007 during Seller’s deposition.

The Appellate Division reversed the trial court’s ruling and found that even though Catena learned of the contamination in the late 1980s, he wasn’t aware (and could not have become aware) of the fraud until he learned of it in discovery. The court explained the importance and general acceptance of the discovery rule in cases involving fraud: the victim’s lack of awareness of the fraud is the wrongdoer’s very object. The rule thus prevents the wrongdoer from benefiting from his own deceit.

The court concluded that when Catena first became aware of contamination, he had no reason to believe that the Seller or the Lender knew about these site conditions. They had not made any representations and their affidavits to NJDEP did not show any suspicious prior users (which were only required to be identified back to 1984). Indeed, Catena’s consultant concluded that the contamination was caused by “airplane related industries” and none of the prior users in the Seller’s and Lender’s affidavits were involved in that industry.

Moreover, Catena would not have learned about the partial cleanup by conducting a public records search, as the contamination and remediation was not reported to NJDEP. Thus, there was no evidence that a more diligent pre-suit investigation would have led to the information about the fraud.

Given these facts, the court concluded that the fraud and Consumer Fraud Act claims were not time barred. The court made clear that the application of the discovery rule is fact and case sensitive and requires a careful analysis of when the purchaser became aware of facts that would alert a reasonable person to the possibility of an actionable claim.

The inescapable conclusion for real estate sellers is that they will face viable claims by purchasers years after a sale if sellers fail to disclose known environmental conditions and remediation activities even in “as is” sale transactions with no affirmative representations or warranties.

California Greenlights “Jurisdiction by Joinder” in Mass Tort Cases

9-1The California Supreme Court earlier this week issued an opinion that, in the words of the dissent, allows for “jurisdiction by joinder.” (Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. v. Superior Court (Anderson), Case No. S221038.) Plaintiffs with claims arising wholly outside California, against non-California defendants, may nevertheless be entitled to jurisdiction in a California court. The keys appear to be (a) whether the claims are similar to those of California residents (b) who are also plaintiffs in the suit (c) against a defendant that conducts significant activity in California as well as elsewhere. While Bristol-Myers most directly applies to large entities in mass tort cases, its rationale could well extend to any lawsuit in which a product was sold or activity conducted in multiple states. The 4-3 decision may also be the subject of a petition for certiorari to the United States Supreme Court.

“Bristol-Myers Squibb Company (BMS), a pharmaceutical manufacturer, conducts significant business and research activities in California but is neither incorporated nor headquartered here.” Eight California lawsuits were filed against it related to BMS’s drug Plavix. Plaintiffs were 86 California residents and 592 nonresidents. None of the residents purchased the drug in or from California, or had other relevant contacts with the state.

The opinion recognizes that “BMS’s business contacts in California are insufficient to invoke general jurisdiction,” because under Daimler AG v. Bauman (2014) 571 U.S. __ , 134 S.Ct. 746, 187 L.Ed.2d 624 that is restricted to a corporation’s state of incorporation or principal place of business. (We have blogged about Daimler and its progeny before: California Court rules no jurisdiction over foreign parent corporations; No in state dealings for years – no jurisdictionOut of state defendant? Out of state exposure? File suit somewhere else; Registered in Delaware Is Not At “Home” There; and A More Personal Touch: Challenge to Madison County Jurisdiction.) Bristol-Myers held, however, that “the company’s California activities are sufficiently related to the nonresident plaintiffs’ suits to support the invocation of specific jurisdiction.”

The court found that it was undisputed that there was specific jurisdiction over the California plaintiffs’ claims, and found that there should be jurisdiction over the nonresidents’ claims as well because “BMS sold Plavix to both the California plaintiffs and the nonresident plaintiffs as part of a common nationwide course of distribution.”

The California activities that Bristol-Myers found “related” to the nonresident plaintiffs’ claims: “BMS’s extensive contacts with California, encompassing extensive marketing and distribution of Plavix, hundreds of millions of dollars of revenue from Plavix sales, a relationship with a California distributor, substantial research and development facilities, and hundreds of California employees” is enough for California courts to “exercise specific personal jurisdiction over nonresident plaintiffs’ claims in this action, which arise from the same course of conduct that gave rise to California plaintiffs‘ claims: BMS’s development and nationwide marketing and distribution of Plavix.”

Bristol-Myers pointed out that the court had previously “adopted a sliding scale approach to specific jurisdiction,” such that that “the more wide ranging the defendant‘s forum contacts, the more readily is shown a connection between the forum contacts and the claim.” Specific jurisdiction is thus proper in this case because “BMS’s contacts with California are substantial and the company has enjoyed sizeable revenues from the sales of its product here — the very product that is the subject of the claims of all of the plaintiffs.”

The court identified several California interests in the joint litigation. One is that “evidence of the injuries allegedly suffered by the nonresident plaintiffs may be relevant and admissible to prove that Plavix similarly injured the California plaintiffs,” so “trying their cases together with those of nonresident plaintiffs could promote efficient adjudication of California residents’ claims.” Similarly, the court was concerned that “separating the nonresident plaintiffs from the resident plaintiffs and forcing the nonresidents to sue in other states” could result in “delays in the California proceedings that would be created by the litigation and appeals of discovery and factual conflicts in the various other forums.” A further, case-specific reason was that “California also has an interest in regulating the conduct of BMS’s codefendant, McKesson Corporation, which is headquartered in California, as a joint defendant with BMS.”

As the dissenting opinion stated: “The majority expands specific jurisdiction to the point that, for a large category of defendants, it becomes indistinguishable from general jurisdiction.” The dissent argued that “mere similarity of claims is an insufficient basis for specific jurisdiction. The claims of real parties in interest, nonresidents injured by their use of Plavix they purchased and used in other states, in no sense arise from BMS’s marketing and sales of Plavix in California, or from any of BMS’s other activities in this state.” The dissent quoted with approval a law review article on the Court of Appeal’s decision: “The claims of the California and nonresident plaintiffs are merely parallel.”

Although the majority opinion was couched in terms of “the particular circumstances of this case,” the dissent looked to the broader precedent being set.

“[T]he majority notes that BMS maintains some research facilities in California, although the majority concedes Plavix was not developed in those facilities. … This second ground of relatedness is both illogical and startling in its potential breadth. Because BMS has performed research on other drugs in California, claims of injury from Plavix may, according to the majority, be adjudicated in this state. Will we in the next case decide that a company may be sued in California for dismissing an employee in Florida because on another occasion it fired a different employee in California, or that an Illinois resident can sue his automobile insurer here for bad faith because the defendant sells health care policies in the California market?”

“As California holds a substantial portion of the United States population, any company selling a product or service nationwide, regardless of where it is incorporated or headquartered, is likely to do a substantial part of its business in California. Under the majority’s theory of specific jurisdiction, California provides a forum for plaintiffs from any number of states to join with California plaintiffs seeking redress for injuries from virtually any course of business conduct a defendant has pursued on a nationwide basis, without any showing of a relationship between the defendant’s conduct in California and the nonresident plaintiffs’ claims. The majority thus sanctions our state to regularly adjudicate disputes arising purely from conduct in other states, brought by nonresidents who suffered no injury here, against companies who are not at home here but simply do business in the state.”

The dissent took issue with other reasons proffered by the majority. While “[t]he majority argues that taking jurisdiction over the nonresidents’ claims furthers a California interest because evidence of their injuries may be admissible to help the California plaintiffs prove Plavix was a defective product,”  the dissent pointed out that “admissibility of other injuries does not depend on joinder of the other injured person.” The majority thought that joint litigation would help the California plaintiffs, but the dissent pointed out that there are many other Plavix suits in other courts around the country. “Whether or not real parties’ claims are heard together with those of the California plaintiffs, inefficiency and the potential for conflicting rulings will exist so long as actions are simultaneously pending in several state and federal courts….No mechanism exists for centralizing nationwide litigation in a state court; there is no means by which pending actions in Illinois courts, for example, can be transferred to a California court.”

The dissent also answered the question, what’s the superlative of “red herring?”

“Finally, the majority asserts that California’s interest in regulating the conduct of codefendant McKesson Corporation (McKesson), a pharmaceutical distributor headquartered in California, justifies adjudicating real parties’ claims against BMS in a California court.…Of all the majority’s red herrings, this is perhaps the ruddiest.” Because of course the question is jurisdiction against Bristol-Myers, not the co-defendant (and there was question as to its role anyway). Research indicates this is the first use of “ruddiest” in a reported California decision. It may not be the last.

As stated above, while Bristol-Myers most directly applies to large entities in mass tort cases, its rationale could well extend to any lawsuit in which a product was sold or an activity conducted in multiple states. The most significant limitation appears to be that a nonresident plaintiff still may not be able to challenge a nonresident defendant in California courts alone; the nonresident needs to find California plaintiffs with similar claims. In any event, counsel who have been advising clients that the Daimler decision forecloses claims in California courts based on general jurisdiction should re-examine that position in light of the Bristol-Myers ruling on specific jurisdiction.

Second Circuit Snuffs Out Plaintiff Counsel Misconduct

On August 8, 2016, the Second Circuit issued its much awaited decision affirming the ruling of the Southern District of New York, which held that a $9.5 billion judgment obtained in Ecuador against Chevron Corporation by the indigenous Lago Agrio Plaintiffs in an environmental litigation could not be enforced. The Second Circuit’s 127-page decision represents a stunning rejection of virtually every legal argument advanced by Steven Donziger, who the district court found guilty of corrupt practices violative of the civil RICO statute.

8-22The Second Circuit’s decision will provide legal scholars much to discuss. After all, Donziger’s attorneys attacked the decision as unprecedented in that the trial court allowed Chevron, which had lost its case in Ecuador, to use a U.S. district court to attack the foreign damages award. However, at its roots, the Donziger RICO litigation was not really about issues such as jurisdiction or the enforceability of foreign judgments. Rather, it was about Donziger and his legal team’s brazen violations of ethics and norms when it prosecuted the Chevron case in Ecuador. The Second Circuit’s decision demonstrates that the court simply could not abide the evidence of legal misconduct. Specific instances of ethical misconduct by Donziger cited by the Second Circuit include the following examples:

  • Instructing his environmental consultant to estimate damages under the faulty assumption that Chevron’s predecessor entity, Texaco, was fully liable for all of the contamination, even after it had left the region. Donziger used what the consultant characterized as a “scientific wild ass guess” in the media to generate settlement leverage.
  • Directing Plaintiffs’ environmental consultants to use less probative tests after early environmental testing demonstrated that the pollution was likely not caused by Texaco.
  • Submitting to the court reports with falsified experts’ conclusions, including the charge that Texaco’s remediation was “inadequate or insufficient.”
  • Paying substantial fees to engineering experts to pose as “independent monitors” without disclosing to Chevron or the court that plaintiffs were paying them, which Donziger characterized in his notes as a “bargain with the devil.”
  • Coercing the presiding judge to cancel pollution site inspections due to concern that additional testing would produce pro-Chevron testing results. As coercion, Donziger used knowledge of an accusation that the judge had traded jobs for sex in his court.
  • Persuading the court to designate an independent court-appointed expert who would appear to be “independent”, despite being controlled by the Plaintiffs.
  • Directing plaintiffs’ environmental consultants to 1) perform the technical work supposedly performed by the court-appointed independent expert and 2) submit the report to the court under the independent expert’s name.

The fundamental weakness of Donziger’s appeal was his utter failure to attack any of the multiple factual bases for the trial court’s decision of nearly 500 pages. Some of the Second Circuit’s most important pronouncements are recitations of age-old legal precepts that are all too often ignored by our nation’s courts.

The appellants argued that any misdeeds by Donziger, however egregious they may have been, did not provide a basis for the district court to nullify their monetary award. They contended that they were unaware of any misconduct and “simply ‘unsophisticated client-principals following the lawyers’ lead’.” In rejecting this argument, the Second Circuit found that there was no basis for arguing that a party ignorant of the fraudulent actions of its lawyer may enforce a fraudulently procured judgment. To do otherwise, the Second Circuit held, would run afoul of the U.S. Supreme Court’s maxim that fraud “is a wrong against the institutions set up to protect and safeguard the public, institutions in which fraud cannot complacently be tolerated consistently with the good order of society.” Thus, the court noted, even innocent clients may not benefit from the fraud of their attorney.

The Hon. Amalya Kearse, writing for the Second Circuit, quoted the district court: “There is no ‘Robin Hood’ defense to illegal and wrongful conduct. And the defendants’ ‘this-is-the-way-it-is-done-in-Ecuador’ excuses–actually a remarkable insult to the people of Ecuador — do not help them. Evidence that Donziger had actively sought a prohibition in Ecuador of the disclosure ordered by the SDNY, the Second Circuit found, was evidence of bad faith and a justification for sanctions. On this basis, the court affirmed the Rule 37 sanctions granted Chevron by the district court. The district court had found the Donziger parties’ “obdurate and quite possibly contemptuous refusal to comply with their discovery obligation” warranted the striking of personal jurisdiction defenses.

A disturbing post-script to the Donziger saga is that, despite the evidence against his ethics, he retains “rock star” celebrity status in certain legal circles. Notably, after the issuance of Judge Lewis Kaplan’s trial court decision, Harvard Law School hosted Donziger at a panel discussion on Ecuadorian rainforest litigation. One may wonder why Donziger was considered a reputable source and deserving of an invitation. In fact, Paul Barrett in Bloomberg Businessweek (August 8, 2016) suggested that Donziger’s Harvard Law hosts ask him the following questions during his visit:

  • Why haven’t you rebutted or explained the evidence of fraud, bribery and collusion against you, under oath in a court of law?
  • If you did not commit fraud in this case, why did Julio Prieto, one of your Ecuadorian lawyers, email you with fears that if your activities were discovered “all of us, your lawyers, might go to jail”?
  • If you did not commit fraud in this case, how do you explain the bank records that show $1,000 was deposited in an Ecuadorian judge’s bank account on several occasions? Why were the deposit slips signed by a staff member of your organization?
  • If you did not ghostwrite the Ecuadorian judgment against Chevron, how do you explain that text from your internal work product was found word-for-word, typos and all, in the judgment?

Barrett suspects these questions were not addressed at the panel discussion in light of the tone of their event announcement material. Barrett concludes that “[w]hat we really need to find out is how much credibility should be assigned to the folks at Harvard, rather than Donziger himself, if they are willing to ignore the mountain of evidence against the racketeer and treat him as some sort of human rights crusader and victim of big business retaliation.” Harvard’s embrace of a disgraced lawyer, no matter how noble the underlying intention, raises an important question about the ends served by lending credibility to a non-credible individual.

All too often, in our nation’s mass tort litigation, such as in asbestos litigation, a clear judicial finding of fraud or misconduct does not result in the forfeiture of the party’s damages award. For example, despite clear evidence of plaintiff lawyers “gaming the system” in the Garlock bankruptcy case, many state court asbestos trial judges appear willing to take this misconduct in stride and to go about business as usual. There is little awareness in the defense bar of any judicial initiative to ensure that Garlock-like offenses are not proliferating in their courtrooms. A thorough house cleaning often does not take place in the judiciary until a journalist or an insightful jurist has brought unwelcome attention to the court.

New York Broadens Personal Injury Statute of Limitations for Waste Sites

On July 21, 2016, Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York signed legislation extending the statute of limitations in New York for personal injury claims related to pollution at superfund sites. The legislation was a response to the concerns of residents of Hoosick Falls, New York whose groundwater was contaminated with PFOA, a chemical compound previously used at manufacturing facilities in Hoosick Falls for several decades. Although the new legislation was specifically tailored to assist residents at Hoosick Falls in bringing PFOA-related personal injury cases, it is likely that the law will have an impact far beyond Hoosick Falls.

7-28The new law resurrects previously time-barred claims. Any time a site is designated a superfund site, potential plaintiffs will now have a new three-year window to bring a personal injury action related to the site. Corporate entities that have been identified as responsible parties at inactive hazardous waste disposal sites may find themselves at increased risk for alleged toxic exposures that may have occurred decades ago. The new law has the potential to generate an enormous windfall for the plaintiff bar.

Prior to the new enactment, New York already had an expansive statute of limitations for toxic tort claimants in latency cases. The period in such cases is computed from the “date of discovery of the injury by the plaintiff or from the date, when through the exercise of reasonable diligence, such injury should had been discovered, which ever is earlier.”

The new statute, codified as CPLR 214-f, supersedes this discovery trigger.

Action to recover damages for personal injury caused by contact with or exposure to any substance or combination of substances found within an area designated as a superfund site. Notwithstanding any provision of law to the contrary, an action to recover personal damages for injury caused by contact with or exposure to any substance or combination of substances contained within an area designated as a superfund site pursuant to either Chapter 103 of Section 42 of the United States Code and/or Section 27-1303 of the environmental conservation law, may be commenced by the plaintiff within the period allowed pursuant to section two hundred fourteen-c of this article or within three years of such designation of such an area as a superfund site, which ever is latest.

The plaintiff may have known about the contamination and alleged illness for years, but no matter. The statute begins anew once the designation takes place.

It is well known that a federal or state site may be designated as a superfund site decades after alleged contamination has taken place. CPLR 214-f may require corporate defendants identified as potentially responsible parties (PRPs), even if de minimis, at newly listed superfund sitesto defend personal injury cases alleging decades-old exposures. The Hoosick Falls litigation will likely target: (1) a single chemical compound, PFOA, (2) used by a small group of defendants, (3) identified in drinking water, and (4) specific diseases that the epidemiologic literature associates with PFOA exposure. As enacted, however, the law may encourage plaintiff lawyers to plead “chemical soup” mass tort toxic tort claims against multiple defendants involving multiple chemical substances and alleging that this “chemical soup” caused a broad range of diseases.

New York ECL 27-1303, which is specifically referenced in the new law, emphasizes the role of New York counties in identifying inactive hazardous waste disposal state sites within their boundaries and submitting annual reports to the NYDEC describing the location of each suspected site and the reasons for such suspicion. Unlike the designation of a superfund site at the federal level, the designation of a superfund site at the state level is a much more localized process that can be subject to political manipulation.

The sponsors of the legislation were clearly influenced, not only by the discovery of water contamination in Hoosick Falls, but the serious problems in Flint, Michigan as well.

The recent discovery of water contamination in Hoosick Falls, New York and Flint, Michigan has raised great alarm across our country and our state. These instances of contamination have been sited as a potential cause of many previously unexplained illnesses suffered by members of those communities. In many cases, the statute of limitations to bring a personal injury action has long since run before any contamination was every discovered. This bill seeks to address this in equity and give those who have been sickened legal recourse to be made whole.”

Although the sponsors claim that their bill would “create a narrowly tailored legal mechanism to address instances where extraordinary circumstances negatively impact public health,” this legislation is anything but narrow. The statute permits recovery “for injury caused by contact with or exposure to any substance or combination of substances.” Plaintiff may argue that the new law applies to any substance at any CERCLA site regardless of whether that substance is subject to regulation under the statute. For example, CERCLA specifically excludes petroleum contamination. Is a company that disposed of petroleum products at a waste site, which is not a proper substance for CERCLA regulation, a proper target of a personal injury action under CPLR 214-f?

“Every Exposure” Theory of Causation Rejected by Georgia Supreme Court

The highest court in Georgia recently excluded a standard plaintiff argument that “every exposure” to asbestos causes mesothelioma. In Scapa Dryer Fabrics, Inc. v. Knight, the court overturned a plaintiff verdict and reversed both the trial court and intermediate appellate court, holding that a medical expert’s opinion that “every exposure above background contributed to cause plaintiff’s mesothelioma” is legally unsound and “does not ‘fit’ the legal standard for causation”, which requires that an exposure be more than de minimis or trivial. The Georgia Supreme Court reversed, resulting in judgment for the defendant.

7-11The defendant, a textile manufacturer in the late 60’s and early 70’s, produced dryer felts. Some felts contained asbestos that was released into the air during manufacture, at a facility where some of the pipes were insulated with material containing asbestos. Plaintiff was an outside sheet-metal contractor who worked at defendant’s facility on multiple occasions over a four-year period. Plaintiff was sometimes present when the manufacturing process was underway, worked in ventilation ducts that had collected dust, and on one occasion cut into pipe insulation and breathed that dust.

Over defendant’s objection, the trial court allowed plaintiffs’ expert pathologist, Dr. Jerrold Abraham, to testify to the following syllogism: “background asbestos is not known to cause mesothelioma;” “the precise point at which cumulative exposure is sufficient to cause any particular person to develop mesothelioma is not scientifically knowable;” “when a person has mesothelioma, it can only be attributed to his cumulative exposure as a whole;” “each and every exposure to respirable asbestos in excess of the background contributes to the cumulative exposure;” therefore, “each exposure in excess of background is a contributing cause of the resulting mesothelioma, regardless of the extent of each exposure.” Dr. Abraham went so far as to testify that “a causal connection would be lacking only if ‘there was no asbestos exposure’ attributable to [defendant]’, that “one fiber [of asbestos] above ambient levels would be causative for someone who had  mesothelioma”, that “he did not need to determine the extent of [plaintiff’s] exposure, but only need to know that the exposure was more than ‘zero’”, and that “if someone gets the disease from a trivial exposure, it is still asbestos-related.’”

This is a common position taken by plaintiffs’ experts in toxic tort litigation. It is known by many names: “single fiber,” “any exposure,” “every exposure” or, in this case, the “cumulative exposure” theory of causation. The theory has been rejected by the supreme courts of Pennsylvania and Texas and many other courts; a recent California appellate court, in dicta, refused to reject this theory outright, but affirmed the plaintiff’s burden as requiring proof that the defendant’s product “was a substantial factor in contributing to the risk of developing asbestos-related cancer.” (See our earlier post on the California case.)

The jury in Scapa assessed 40% fault to the defendant and awarded plaintiffs $4 million.

The Supreme Court of Georgia analyzed this issue first by examining the relevant standards for admissibility of expert testimony. It noted that the question of admissibility of expert testimony is a question “committed to the sound discretion of the trial court.” However, using language much like the United States Supreme Court in Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc., 509 U.S. 579, 597 (1999), the court held that it is incumbent upon the trial court to “act as a ‘gatekeeper’ to ensure the relevance and reliability of expert testimony.” Dr. Abraham’s qualifications were not in dispute. Instead, the defendant challenged his “single fiber” theory as “junk science”, and also argued that the testimony was not relevant because it did not “fit” the legal standard for causation under Georgia law. The court agreed with the second point (and hence did not reach the question whether the “cumulative exposure” theory is scientifically valid), holding that because this opinion “does not ‘fit’” the legal standard for causation, and for that reason, the admission of his testimony … was not helpful to the jury and amounted to an abuse of discretion.”

To prove causation in an asbestos personal injury case under Georgia law, a plaintiff must therefore show that an exposure was a “contributing factor” in bringing about the disease. It need not be “substantial”, but it must be “meaningful” and not “de minimis.”

Though the court recognized that the plaintiffs in that case “may well have presented evidence of more than a de minimis exposure” at defendants’ facility, defendants presented evidence to the contrary. But by admitting the opinion of Dr. Abraham that “any asbestos above background … was a contributing cause of the mesothelioma” (i.e., even a de minimis exposure), the trial court allowed the jury to resolve this dispute in a manner inconsistent with Georgia law.

The court cautioned: “That is not to say that expert testimony premised upon a cumulative exposure theory could never be relevant to causation.” But the court held fast to the notion that de minimis or trivial exposures are not causative. Had Dr. Abraham also presented reliable evidence that the exposures in question were “more than de minimis,” and had he based his ultimate causation opinion on exposures that were more than de minimis, “the opinion then might ‘fit’ the pertinent causation inquiry, notwithstanding that the extent of exposure is disputed.” The court pointed out that in other cases Dr. Abraham’s “cumulative exposure” theory has been allowed when coupled with a review of the evidence of the extent of exposure and of studies showing such exposures present an increased risk of developing mesothelioma.

While a precise quantitative exposure analysis is not required, a qualitative assessment is. Thus, an opinion that a “de minimis” or “any” exposure could cause mesothelioma is inadmissible (at least in Georgia), while an opinion that each “significant” or “sustained” exposure to asbestos” is a cause would be admissible.

How Much is too Much? Counsel’s Active Conduct in Asbestos Suit Results in Forfeiture of Jurisdictional Defense

Since the jurisdictionU.S. Supreme Court handed down Daimler AG v. Bauman 134 S.Ct. 746 (2014), personal jurisdiction defenses have experienced a renaissance in asbestos litigation.  Defendants that wish to win such arguments, however, are well advised to heed a recent ruling by Judge Gibney, who presides over Rhode Island’s state court asbestos docket.  In Bazor v. Abex Corporation et al., C.A. No. PC-10-3965 (R.I. Super. May 2, 2016), Judge Gibney issued a ruling that is instructive on what a defendant must do to preserve its right to contest jurisdiction, holding that a defense counsel’s “active conduct constitute[d] forfeiture of the defense of lack of personal jurisdiction.”  The court referred to “forfeiture” as opposed to “waiver” because the defendant had properly asserted the lack of personal jurisdiction as a special defense.

In this instance, the “active participation” included the following conduct during the two years and nine months between the filing of an answer and the motion to dismiss: filing an objection to the trial date, attending a plaintiff’s deposition, requesting and participating in the reopening of that deposition, participating in the deposition of the plaintiffs’ expert, objecting to the expert’s deposition on non-jurisdictional grounds, disclosing eight  expert witnesses, filing 15 motions in limine, supplementing its expert witness disclosure, producing two expert witnesses for depositions, responding to discovery (without preserving the defense of lack of personal jurisdiction), supplementing its expert discovery, moving to compel the production of the plaintiffs’ bankruptcy trust documents, and participating in at least ten status/settlement conferences.  In short, defense counsel’s very active participation in the litigation was so active so as to constitute “forfeiture” of a claim of lack of personal jurisdiction.

Looking to federal jurisprudence for guidance, the court focused on defense counsel’s litany of activity over several years.  Synthesizing federal decisions, the court identified two  principal elements to weigh to determine whether a defense of personal jurisdiction is forfeited: (a) the delay in asserting the defense; and (b) the “nature and extent” of the defendant’s involvement in the case.  The court noted that the first factor could be met by as little as four months’ delay; but reasoned that the second factor weighed more heavily than the mere passage of time.  With regard to the second factor, the court cited defendant’s filing of an appearance, participation in discovery, attending and taking depositions, and filing and opposing motions as evidence of active participation.  Notably, the court found that the defendant had created “substantial delay” without “a sufficiently meritorious reason” for failing to assert its defense for two years and nine months after the filing of its answer.  The level of participation appears to have been the deciding factor; with special attention brought to “the fifteen motions in limine [defendant] filed which sought merits-based rulings” and the failure to continually assert the defense throughout the course of litigation.  However, of concern is that the ruling did nothing to establish a “bright line” rule of precisely how much participation is “too much” so as to result in a forfeiture of a jurisdictional defense.

It is unclear where this decision leaves litigants who need to participate in early discovery and who also want to preserve their jurisdictional defenses.  Defendants who wish to maintain their defenses are faced with choosing from various interpretations of the Bazor decision, focusing on the assertion of their rights and carefully monitoring the level of their participation.  The decision could reasonably be read to indicate that a party may participate in discovery, but only if they continue to maintain and pursue their jurisdictional defense.  Alternatively, some parties may refuse to participate in non-jurisdictional discovery for fear of inadvertent forfeiture. This may create friction with plaintiff’s counsel when their clients are in poor health, which frequently occurs in asbestos cases across the country.  Ultimately, the lesson of Bazor may be that safest resolution for defense counsel will be to file and pursue dispositive jurisdictional motions as early in the case as possible.  At the very least, defense counsel should raise the defense in pleadings and discovery which precede the filing of the motion to dismiss on jurisdictional grounds and/or reach some sort of agreement with opposing counsel to prevent forfeiture despite some level of active participation in the case. For example, defense counsel in the asbestos litigation should obtain a stipulation that attendance at an exigent deposition does not constitute a waiver of personal jurisdiction arguments; and that stipulation should be placed on the record.