WARNING: Illinois 25-Year Statute of Repose No Longer Prohibits Claims Against Employers

No longer will employers be entitled to rely on the Illinois workers’ compensation exclusive remedy protections to prohibit civil actions filed 25 years or more after a worker’s alleged exposure. On May 17, 2019, Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker signed into law Senate Bill 1596, which allows tort claims to be filed after the state’s occupational-disease 25-year time bar expires. Effective immediately, the Illinois Workers’ Compensation Act and Illinois Occupational Disease Act no longer prohibit workers diagnosed with latent diseases from pursuing their claims after the 25-year statute of repose.

According to a statement from his office, Gov. Pritzker signed this bill into law because the 25-year statute of repose was shorter than the medically recognized time period in which some diseases, including asbestos-related illnesses, are known to manifest.

SB 1596 was enacted in response to the Illinois Supreme Court’s 2015 ruling in Folta v. Ferro Engineering. 2015 IL 118070, 43 N.E.3d 108 (2015). In Folta, the court held that the state’s workers’ compensation and occupational disease law imposed a 25-year statute of repose on both workers’ compensation and tort law claims brought by people diagnosed with latent diseases after exposure to toxic substances such as asbestos, radiation, and beryllium in the workplace. Id. Further, the court held that these Acts were the exclusive remedy to Illinois employees who suffered from latent injuries. Id. at ¶ 12, 6-7.

Illinois law clearly states that the purpose of a repose period is to terminate the possibility of liability after a defined period of time. Id. at ¶ 33, 116. However, this new law removes the statute of repose language from the Acts and affirmatively excludes latent injuries from the exclusive remedy provisions.

While the bill contains no mention of retroactivity, the question of whether its enactment revives certain tort law claims remains unanswered. Illinois courts generally frown upon retroactive applicability and enforcement when a piece of legislation is silent on the issue. But some speculate that the absence of any retroactive language means that this law will not affect certain claims until 2044. While the impact of this legislation remains to be seen, what can be expected is litigation surrounding this issue in the near future.

Click here for a full text of the legislation.

California Court of Appeal: Intentional Tortfeasor Barred From Apportioning Liability for Noneconomic Damages Under Proposition 51

California’s Proposition 51 limits a defendant’s share of liability for non-economic damages (like pain and suffering) to the “defendant’s percentage of fault” for the injury, effectively allocating to other tortfeasors liability for the rest of the noneconomic damages. A recent decision, Burch v. CertainTeed, has ruled that Proposition 51 does not apply to intentional torts. The ruling magnifies a split in California appellate authority which is expected to be resolved in another case that is already before the California Supreme Court.

Plaintiffs sued defendant CertainTeed and others claiming that work with asbestos-containing underground pipes caused Mr. Burch’s mesothelioma. The jury returned a verdict for plaintiff on his claim for negligence, failure to warn, strict product liability, intentional concealment, and intentional misrepresentation. The jury awarded $776,201 in economic damages and $9.25 million in noneconomic damages. The jury apportioned 62% of the fault to CertainTeed (the only remaining defendant), with the remaining 38% allocated to various manufacturers and employers. The trial court ruled that under Proposition 51 (codified in Civil Code § 1431.2), CertainTeed, while liable for 100% of the economic damages, was liable for only 62% of the noneconomic damages.

Plaintiffs appealed, arguing that Proposition 51 does not apply to an intentional tortfeasor such as CertainTeed, so that CertainTeed should have been liable for 100% of both the economic and noneconomic damages, even though it was only 62% responsible.

The Burch court acknowledged the split of authority on the question whether the several liability provision of Proposition 51 for noneconomic damages applies to an intentional tortfeasor. In B.B. v. County of Los Angeles (2018) 25 Cal.App.5th 115, a different court of appeal concluded that Proposition 51 mandates several liability for noneconomic damages in direct proportion to even an intentional tortfeasor’s direct percentage of fault. That case is presently before the California Supreme Court.

The court in Burch, however, sided with another case, Thomas v. Duggins (2006) 139 Cal.App.4th 1105, which came to the opposite conclusion. The court in Burch offered a two-part analysis why Proposition 51 should not apply to an intentional tortfeasor. First, at the time Proposition 51 passed, the rules of equitable reimbursement (equitable indemnity, equitable contribution) and comparative fault did not allow an intentional tortfeasor to seek such reimbursement from a negligent third party (or seek a reduction in damages based on a plaintiff’s or third party’s comparative negligence), based on “policy considerations of deference and punishment for intentional torts.”

Second, the court in Burch turned to the statute itself: “In any action for personal injury, property damage, or wrongful death, based upon principles of comparative fault, the liability of each defendant for noneconomic damages shall be several only and shall not be joint”. Focusing on the italicized phrase, the court reasoned this language had to mean that Proposition 51 incorporated those laws or principles of comparative fault that existed at the time it was enacted — which included the law that prohibited an intentional tortfeasor from seeking equitable indemnity, contribution, and apportionment. (The court also drew a similar inference from Proposition 51’s ballot materials, though these materials make no mention of the rules of comparative fault as they applied to intentional tortfeasors.)

B.B v. County of Los Angeles relied on DaFonte v Up-Right, Inc. (1992) 2 Cal.4th 593, in which the California Supreme Court held that Proposition 51 applied to the fault of all joint tortfeasors, even one who was statutorily immune from suit (in that case, the plaintiff’s employer). The Burch court stated that DaFonte “had no occasion to consider” whether Proposition 51 allowed an intentional tortfeasor to apportion noneconomic damages according to its percentage of fault. Interestingly, though, the Court in DaFonte expressly rejected the argument, similar to the one advanced by the court in Burch, that preexisting law imposed various constraints on the application of Proposition 51. Thus, the reasoning in Burch – and in Thomas — that Proposition 51 “must have incorporated [prior] judicially-construed principles” of equitable reimbursement is flatly inconsistent with DaFonte.

In the wake of Burch, the Supreme Court in B.B v. County of Los Angeles will likely address, among other issues:

  • Does the concept of “fault” in Proposition 51 include all torts and theories of liability, or, for policy reasons, will an exception be made for intentional torts?
  • Which of Burch or B.B. is more consistent with prior decisions holding Proposition 51 applies not only to negligence claims, but also to strict liability, and holding that tortfeasors immune from suit should also be allocated a share of the fault?
  • Of what relevance are earlier rules for equitable reimbursement from solvent tortfeasors, to the issues of apportioning fault among all tortfeasors, and limiting a defendant’s liability for noneconomic damages to its proportionate share of the overall fault?
  • Does Proposition 51 only apply, as suggested by the court in Burch, to “situations in which defendants who bore only a small share of fault for an accident could be left with the obligation to pay all or a large share of the plaintiff’s damages if other more culpable tortfeasors were insolvent”?

Until B.B is decided by the Supreme Court, trial courts in California are free to follow either of the two contrary strands of appellate authority on this issue. In the meantime, plaintiffs have even more reason to allege an intentional tort claim and hope to make it stick.

Stay tuned.

Not Fair in Pennsylvania: Application of The Pennsylvania Fair Share Act to Strict Liability Cases Reviewed by State Supreme Court


In Pennsylvania, the proper method by which shares of liability are allocated to asbestos defendants (and strict liability defendants more generally) has been unclear for some time. The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania heard argument on March 6, 2019 in a case that should clarify matters and provide some certainty regarding the Pennsylvania Fair Share Act.

Background

The Pennsylvania legislature passed the Fair Share Act in 2011, eliminating joint and several liability from most tort cases. See 42 Pa. C.S. §7102. Under the Fair Share Act, each defendant is only liable for its apportioned amount of lability:

Where recovery is allowed against more than one person, including actions for strict liability, and where liability is attributed to more than one defendant, each defendant shall be liable for that proportion of the total dollar amount awarded as damages in the ratio of the amount of that defendant’s liability to the amount of liability attributed to all defendants and other persons to whom liability is apportioned under subsection (a.2).

42 Pa. C.S. §7102(a.1). From a practical standpoint, this provision of the Fair Share Act makes “pro rata” or “apportioned” allocation the default mechanism for allocating liability amongst tortfeasors in Pennsylvania.

Subsection (a.2) provides that “a defendant’s liability shall be several and not joint, and the court shall enter a separate and several judgment in favor of the plaintiff and against each defendant for the apportioned amount of that defendant’s liability.” 42 Pa. C.S. §7102(a.2). This provision eliminates joint and several liability and makes all tortfeasors severally liable to the injured party except in a few defined circumstances. For instance, where a defendant is found more than 60% liable to plaintiff, that defendant is jointly and severally liable. See 42 Pa. C.S. §7102(a.1)(3).

Although the Fair Share Act specifically applies to “actions for strict liability,” trial courts have inconsistently applied pro rata allocation in asbestos strict liability litigation. Many courts have relied upon a prior version of the Fair Share Act which apportioned fault amongst strictly liable defendants on a per capita basis whereby each defendant is equally responsible for a portion of the verdict (e.g. five defendants would each be 20% liable).

Roverano

The Superior Court held in December 2017 that the Fair Share Act applies to both negligence and strict liability actions. See Roverano v. John Crane, Inc., 177 A.3d 892 (Pa. Super. 2017). In Roverano, a Philadelphia jury awarded $6.4 million to a former utility worker and his wife in an asbestos (lung cancer) lawsuit. The trial court ruled that the Fair Share Act did not apply and apportioned the judgment equally among the eight defendants determined to be tortfeasors. The two defendants left at trial appealed, arguing (1) that the Fair Share Act applies to strict liability matters and (2) that the jury may consider evidence of settlements with bankrupt entities in connection with apportionment of liability.

The Superior Court agreed, finding that “liability in strict liability cases must be allocated in the same way as in other tort cases, and not on a per capita basis” and that “settlements with bankrupt entities [may be] included in the calculation of allocated liability” under the Fair Share Act provided that defendants at trial “submit evidence to establish that the non-parties were joint tortfeasors.” Roverano, 177 A.3d at 909.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted a petition for appeal in Roverano to settle these issues of “first impression” to determine the proper method of allocation in strict liability cases. The Roverano case was argued before the Supreme Court on March 6, 2018.

The justices were generally skeptical of proportional allocation of fault in asbestos litigation, finding that such an approach would lend itself to “junk science” over how fault should be apportioned between defendants. Further, the justices questioned how it would be possible for a jury to determine proportional fault in a “non-arbitrary way” in asbestos cases. Counsel for the defense argued that the Fair Share Act is specifically focused on apportionment of damages, not liability, such that the cause of action is not altered. Plaintiffs’ counsel asserted that it would be impossible for the jury to apportion fault in this manner where the medical community has not been able to do so in the asbestos context. Plaintiffs also argued that bankrupt entities should not be allowed on the verdict sheet because it would violate federal law that bars bankrupt entities from defending lawsuits.

Roverano presents an opportunity for the Supreme Court to set the record straight once and for all as to whether the Fair Share Act applies to strict liability litigation. It appears based on oral argument, however, that the Supreme Court is focused more narrowly on whether the Fair Share Act should apply in asbestos cases, entertaining argument as to whether it is medically and scientifically possible to do so at all. Some commentators were anticipating that the Supreme Court might – in the interest of predictability in products litigation – take a broader approach and establish a framework as to how liability should be apportioned generally in strict liability cases. A decision is expected in a few months.

Plaintiffs Push to Initiate Asbestos Reporting Rules

Last week, various public health and environmental organizations sued to compel the Environmental Protection Agency to initiate an asbestos reporting rule under the Toxic Substances and Control Act (“TSCA”). Plaintiffs seek to compel importers, manufacturers, and possessors of asbestos and asbestos-containing materials to submit reports on the amounts of asbestos imported and used, the sites where use occurs, the nature of the use, and the resulting potential for exposure of workers and the public.

The complaint for declaratory and injunctive relief was filed in District Court for the Northern District of California by the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization, American Public Health Association, Center for Environmental Health, Environmental Working Group, and Environmental Health Strategy Center. Plaintiffs’ firms Motley Rice, Simmons Hanley Conroy, and Early, Lucarelli, Sweeney & Meisenkothen are sponsors of the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization’s annual conference.

The EPA “shall promulgate rules” for asbestos reporting as the “Administrator may reasonably require.” Using its TSCA authority, the EPA promulgated the Chemical Data Reporting rule, which requires reporting of all chemicals imported and manufactured in amounts of 25,000 pounds or greater at a site. However, the EPA advised an asbestos manufacturer and importer in a letter that asbestos was not subject to the Chemical Data Reporting rule because it is a naturally occurring chemical substance.

The EPA denied plaintiffs’ December 2018 petition to expand the Chemical Data Reporting requirements, designate asbestos as a reportable substance, and eliminate exemptions. The EPA reasoned that the Chemical Data Reporting rule did not apply to all asbestos manufacturers or importers, and reporting would not provide information that is not already known by the EPA. Following this denial, plaintiffs have a right to de novo review in a judicial proceeding within 60 days. This lawsuit says asbestos should be subject to the Chemical Data Reporting rule.

This complaint is not alone. Last month, the Attorneys General of 14 states and Washington, D.C. petitioned the EPA to initiate similar rulemaking on asbestos reporting. If a judge rules in favor of the asbestos reporting rule, defendants that manufacture, import, or possess asbesto may be subject to the requirements of the Chemical Data Reporting rule. If an asbestos reporting rule is not initiated, plaintiffs and plaintiffs’ firms will surely continue to challenge the EPA.

The End of Litigation Tourism in St. Louis?

St. Louis, Missouri is a beautiful city with many attractions, but few want to be dragged there involuntarily. Yet that has been the case for a number of corporate defendants in recent years, who have been sued in St. Louis City courts in mass tort litigation by thousands of plaintiffs from all over the country, despite their having no connection at all with St. Louis or even Missouri.

Why St. Louis? The City is a small urban geographical area in the middle of the greater St. Louis area (including St. Louis County), with a reputation for overly plaintiff-friendly juries. It holds a prominent place on the American Tort Reform’s list of “Judicial Hellholes,” which cites litigation “infused with junk science,” massive verdicts, excessive lawsuit advertising poisoning the jury pools, abusive actions, and blatant forum shopping.

So it’s no surprise that plaintiffs’ attorneys in the talc ovarian cancer body powder litigation picked St. Louis city courts for one of their favored venues. Beginning in 2014, Johnson & Johnson and its talc supplier, Gordon & Rees client Imerys Talc America, were sued in numerous multi-plaintiff cases, with hundreds of out of state and non-St. Louis plaintiffs. Trial after trial occurred over the next four years, with verdicts in the tens of millions, and even in the billions, against Johnson & Johnson. The trial court repeatedly denied motions challenging jurisdiction, venue, and joinder. The court also denied motions to exclude what the defendants deemed (and other courts had found to be) unreliable scientific evidence that talc-based powders even can cause ovarian cancer.

How did this all happen in St. Louis? It happened because when one St. Louis plaintiff filed suit there, dozens of out-of-state and non-St. Louis plaintiffs joined in her suit. The St. Louis judge ruled that if one plaintiff had proper venue in St. Louis, all the others could piggy-back on her suit no matter where they were from or where they were allegedly injured, thus establishing venue for everyone. The defendants argued that joinder could not create venue under Missouri law, but were shot down time after time. Motions, briefs, arguments, and pre-trial writs, all to no avail; trial after trial, with the court trying claims of non-Missouri plaintiffs for the most part.

Then the defendants got the attention of the Missouri Supreme Court. In response to writs of prohibition filed by Imerys and Johnson & Johnson, the Court stayed a 2017 trial set to begin with a plaintiff who the defendants argued had proper venue in the county, not the city, to review the venue issue that had created a litigation hub in the city courtroom. On February 13, 2019, the Missouri Supreme Court appears to have ended litigation tourism in St. Louis, in a significant ruling that should stop non-St. Louis plaintiffs from bringing their claims there, and halt the pervasive forum shopping. In two companion suits the Missouri Supreme Court held that a tort plaintiff must establish proper venue for her own claims—she cannot merely join in a suit filed by a St. Louis city plaintiff and obtain proper venue by piggy-backing. In other words, joinder cannot create venue. Period. “It cannot and does not,” as evidenced by Missouri rules and “40 years of Supreme Court precedent.” Click here for a prior post on cases rejecting “jurisdiction by joinder.”

The 4-3 opinion reads strongly, as do the dissents.  But there is no mistaking that the forum shopping that brought hundreds, even thousands, of plaintiffs into St. Louis city courts even though they had no relation to the forum should be at an end.  And that is good news for those who don’t want to be dragged into St. Louis.

California Court Makes it Harder for Defense to Defeat Motions for Trial Preference

A recent California Court of Appeal case, Ellis v. Superior Court, adds another challenge for defendants opposing a motion for trial preference in an asbestos case. Ellis dilutes the standard and shuts down ways for litigants to attack motions for preference.

California requires a court to grant trial preference and set the case for trial within 120 days if the moving party is over 70 years old, has a substantial interest in the case, and his or her “health . . . is such that a preference is necessary to avoid prejudicing the party’s interest in the litigation.”

Plaintiff David Ellis moved for trial preference. It was based on Ellis’s declaration that he was age 75 and suffering from asbestos-related metastatic kidney cancer, pleural disease from exposure to asbestos-containing materials, and a host of other related illnesses. The motion was accompanied by declarations from Ellis’s attorney and expert, a cardiologist. The trial court denied Ellis’s motion for preference, ruling that the expert was not qualified to opine as to Ellis’s condition (in contrast to, for example, the oncologist who regularly saw Ellis). The court also ruled that the records considered by the expert were undated and vague.

The California Court of Appeal vacated the trial court’s decision as an abuse of discretion. The Court of Appeal found that the trial court “overlooked undisputed, convincing evidence” that the expert had extensive experience in internal medicine and was therefore qualified to opine on Ellis’s condition. The court so ruled even though the expert last examined Ellis in 2016, two years before the motion for preference. The court also found that even though the expert only vaguely described the medical records in his declaration, that was enough: “[H]is 2016 report and his declaration identifies and discusses a number of the extensive records and tests he administered and/or considered” in treating Ellis.

The Ellis decision further lowers the bar for preference. The same court recently decided Fox v. Metalclad Insulation, LLC,  which also reversed a trial court’s denial of plaintiff’s motion for preference. The defense in Fox argued that plaintiff’s declarations failed to demonstrate that plaintiff’s health necessitated the granting of preference. The defense in Ellis did not dispute the severity of Ellis’s illness, but that Ellis’s showing of preference was insufficient. In Ellis, the expert’s declaration lacked the right type of medical foundation and was based on his examination of Ellis from two years earlier. However, the court’s decision indicates that plaintiffs can have any doctor submit a declaration, and can rely on vaguely-described medical records without plaintiff undergoing an updated medical examination.

Ellis is (at least for now) an unpublished opinion, which is helpful to defendants because plaintiffs cannot cite it as precedent in California courts. Nevertheless, Ellis tells us where the courts are going on preference issues.

Plaintiffs Claim “No One Has Ever Identified a Safe Level of Exposure to Asbestos.” Cal/Osha Begs to Differ.

If you have been in an asbestos trial lately you have probably heard the claim that “no one has ever identified a safe level of exposure to asbestos.” You may have seen power point slides sprinkled a smorgasbord of acronyms for regulatory agencies such as OSHA, NIOSH, WHO, IARC and more, all accompanied by the claim that they all say no safe level of exposure has ever been established. Leaving aside for the moment that all such pronouncements, if they occurred at all, would probably be hearsay, there is another fundamental problem with this  contention. While it may be true now that everyone says that,  it was not always the case. To the contrary, at least one notable regulatory agency said just the opposite, and said it repeatedly over many years. If one looks back to when the exposures were occurring and evaluates what was being said at that time, often a much different picture comes into focus than what the plaintiffs’ bar and their experts claim.

As a case in point, look at the State of California’s Department of Industrial Relations General Industry Safety Orders (“GISOs”) Title 8, Chptr 7 CA Administrative Code. These regulations had the force of law. They existed as early as 1936. Violations were punishable by fines and could be prosecuted as misdemeanors. The law has provided that a branch of the Department of Industrial Relations enforce the safety orders as adopted by the Board. In effect, therefore, a company must comply with the GISOs and follow the standard set by the regulators.

Plaintiffs’ assertion that no organization has ever declared that asbestos exposure is safe is factually and historically false. For example, in 1949, the GISOs indicated that asbestos exposures at a level of 5 million particles per cubic foot is “considered safe for men to work whether for brief periods or for full working periods daily for an indefinite time.” (Emphasis added.) Widening the hole in plaintiffs’ arguments, the 1949 GISO also stated that “differences of opinion are found among authorities. The [5 million particles per cubic foot is] given as an indication of current opinion and practice, doubts being resolved on the side of safety.” (emphasis added) Thus, even after considering all the differences of opinion available to the Department of Industrial Relations at the time, it still considered a certain level of exposure to asbestos as safe.

Subsequent revisions to the GISOs create even a greater issue for plaintiffs. Similar language was used again in the 1955 revisions. As late as 1968, the following language was included: “The following table represents airborne concentrations of substances which will provide a reasonably safe environment for nearly all workers. The concentrations represent conditions under which nearly all workers may be repeatedly exposed day after day without adverse effect.” Again, the 1969 GISOs indicate that exposures of 5 million particles per cubic foot or less are safe.

Defendants should be ready with these and other documents to rebut plaintiffs’ misleading generalizations during trial. Left unchecked, these statements can be detrimental to your case and be a factor for a plaintiff’s verdict. These type of statements are factually and historically incorrect, and the jury must be alerted to the true standard that companies were held to during the time of plaintiff’s alleged exposure.

Damages Limited to Policy Limits? Not Quite.

When a defendant dies before suit is filed, a California plaintiff can sue by naming the estate as defendant but serving the decedent’s insurer. The plaintiff cannot recover damages from the insurer beyond the policy limits. (Cal. Prob. Code, §§ 550-555.)

In a recent case brought under these statutes, the insurer ended up paying more than policy limits. Meleski v. Estate of Albert Hotlen. How did this happen?

Plaintiff made an offer of judgment (like rule 68 offers in Federal rules-based jurisdictions) for one dollar below policy limits. California’s section 998 (much like rule 68 offers in Federal rules-based jurisdictions), allows a party that makes an offer the other side does not accept to recover costs, including expert fees, if the party that does not accept the offer does not achieve a more favorable result at trial. (Cal. Code Civ. Proc., § 998.) The insurer did not accept, and the jury returned a verdict above policy limits. In Meleski, costs amounted to two thirds of the policy limit. Plaintiff accordingly sought payment of costs under section 998.

The insurer argued that the offer of judgment statute applied only to parties and that the insurer was not a named party. The court of appeal rejected this argument, holding that the insurer was, though not named, nevertheless a de facto. The court reasoned that the insurer had “complete control of the litigation of this matter, it also was the only entity opposing Plaintiff that risked losing money in the litigation.” The court concluded by stating that “it is a legal fiction that the estate is the party. In actuality, [the insurance company] is the party litigating the case, inasmuch as it alone is at risk of loss and it alone controls the litigation.” Although a personal representative of the estate can be joined to the litigation, one was not in this case.

The court then ruled that the statutory limitation of damages to policy limits did not limit an award under section 998. The Probate Code limit applies to damages, but a section 998 award is of costs incurred for litigation after denial of the offer, not damages.

This decision gives 998 offers their full weight in circumstances where insurers might have thought the policy limit is the worst case scenario. As the court of appeal stated, recoveries under 998 are not damages, but rather are costs and therefore recoverable in addition to and despite the statutory limitation.

New York’s Highest Court Puts the “Brakes” on Asbestos Causation Evidence

Earlier this week, New York’s highest court effectively endorsed the “Forsterite defense” for chrysotile in friction products. By a 4-1 decision, the Court of Appeals affirmed a trial court order setting aside a jury verdict on the basis of plaintiffs’ failure to prove causation. In Juni v. A.O. Smith Water Products, the court ruled that plaintiffs’ expert evidence “was insufficient as a matter of law to establish that respondent Ford Motor Company’s conduct was a proximate cause of the decedent’s injuries.”

The majority opinion is sparse, only two sentences and sixty-eight words long. A concurring opinion by Judge Wilson, however, is more enlightening. Judge Wilson held that while there was no dispute that raw chrysotile asbestos carries increased risk of mesothelioma, plaintiffs did not submit any proof that chrysotile asbestos, as contained in Ford’s friction products, posed any causal relationship to disease. Ford’s experts set forth the “Forsterite defense” – that as a result of high heat in manufacturing and braking, any chrysotile in friction products would be converted into the “biologically inert” substance Forsterite. Plaintiffs did not produce an expert to rebut this opinion. Instead, plaintiff’s own expert conceded that “no one knows whether the friction product dust to which Mr. Juni was exposed when replacing the used products was toxic.”

This decision is a positive development for friction defendants in New York asbestos litigation and elsewhere. It is also authority for the broader proposition that the central issue is whether asbestos as a purported component of another product can cause disease -and not whether asbestos standing alone causes disease. Plaintiffs need to prove the former to establish general causation, and need to prove general causation before they can demonstrate specific causation.

At the same time, the decision emphasized that it was based “on this particular record.” Thus, the decision may be the result of inadequate trial preparation on the plaintiffs’ part rather than some significant shift in asbestos causation law. We expect the plaintiffs’ bar to respond aggressively in working up causation proof in pending and future cases. This may include finding experts who will attempt to dispute the amount of chrysotile converted into Forsterite, or the toxigenic properties of Forsterite.

 

California to Apply Sharia Law in an Asbestos Exposure Case!…Sort Of

A judge in the southern California coordinated asbestos matters issued an order applying Iranian law where all of a California plaintiff’s alleged exposure to asbestos occurred in Iran. In Sabetian v. Air and Liquid Systems Corporation, Judge John Kralik applied Iranian law on (1) punitive damages, (2) strict liability, and (3) joint and several liability. However, the court declined to apply the Iranian (1) standard of negligence, (2) the cap on general damages, and (3) the formula to determine loss of consortium damages.

Other judges in this court when presented with a similar issue have declined to apply Iranian law due to the religious influence on Iranian law. Judge Kralik nevertheless stated that “these provisions of law appear well-established, civil, and secular in nature…and these laws do not radically or offensively differ from traditions in the law of the various United States.”

Judge Kralik’s decision to apply Iranian law is a step forward for defendants who often face plaintiffs who now reside in California but allegedly were injured elsewhere. Judge Kralik’s decision relies heavily on McCann v. Foster Wheeler, LLC (2010) 48 Cal.4th 68, in which one of this post’s authors persuaded the trial court to apply Oklahoma law to a California resident suing a New York manufacturer for injuries caused by alleged exposure from asbestos-containing products in Oklahoma. In both McCann and Sabetian, plaintiff was a resident of California at the time of suit, but alleged exposure to asbestos elsewhere.

I. The governmental interest analysis

Similar to other jurisdictions, California applies the governmental interest analysis to determine choice-of-law inquiries. The analysis involves three steps: First, the court determines whether the applicable rules of law are different. Second, the court analyzes each jurisdiction’s interest in having its own law applied to the dispute. Third, the court determines which jurisdiction’s interest would be more significantly impaired if its law were not applied, and applies that jurisdiction’s law.

Here, Judge Kralik determined that Iranian law was materially different from California law. Both California, where plaintiff has lived for decades, and Iran, the “locus” of the injury, have an interest. Judge Kralik also determined that Iran’s interest would be more significantly impaired if Iranian law was not applied. The government of Iran would have a “strong interest in applying its own laws to a refinery it owned and an employee that it employed…California has little interest in legislating behavior at such refineries and oil fields.”

II. Iranian law applied

Because neither punitive damages or strict liability are recognized by Iranian law, the court ruled that defendants would be subject to neither in this case.

Iranian law does not recognize joint and several liability unless there is an explicit statutory exception. Plaintiff argued that a statutory exception existed for those determined to be an “employer” under the Civil Responsibility Act. Here, the court decided that it would apply Iranian law, but that it would issue a post-verdict determination of whether plaintiff has shown whether any of the defendants were “joint employers” for the exception to apply.

III. Iranian law not applied

The court declined to apply Iranian law in three areas, not because the “government interest” analysis was different but because either the court could not satisfy itself as to what Iranian law was on that point, or because the Iranian law offended American norms.

For example, the Iranian negligence standard of care is based on “custom and usage” rather than the California reasonable person standard. The court declined to apply the Iranian standard because there was a lack of authority explaining “custom and usage.”

Similarly, although Iran generally prohibits loss of consortium damages, the court ruled that “the prohibition is not established with sufficient clarity ion Iranian law to allow for application in this case.”

Iranian law has a cap on general damages that is set by reference to a memorandum prepared by unnamed Iranian government lawyers who have the power to alter the cap as they see fit. Judge Kralik declined to apply the Iranian limit because its apparently arbitrary nature could “offend fundamental due process if applied in an American court.”

IV. Conclusion

This decision offers hope that defendants will be able to apply the law of the jurisdiction in which the injuries allegedly occurred, rather than the law of a more plaintiff-friendly jurisdiction like California. Judge Kralik conceded that this issue had substantial grounds for difference of opinion and expressly invited appellate resolution. However, as of the posting of this article, plaintiff had not sought any appellate review.