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.

Survivor (Survival Action): Doe and Gratuitous Care Edition

In the recent decision Williams v. The Pep Boys Manny Moe & Jack of Cal., a California court of appeal addressed four important topics that defendants frequently confront:

  1. How to defeat a plaintiff’s attempt to name defendants late as “Does.”
  2. A not-so-welcome restatement that economic damages include nursing services gratuitously provided by family members.
  3. A welcome ruling that recoverable damages in a survival action are limited to damages incurred before death.
  4. A reminder that a settlement offer to multiple plaintiffs will not qualify for cost-shifting, even if plaintiffs fail to “beat” the offer at trial, unless the offer is apportioned among plaintiffs and is not conditioned on acceptance by all.

1. “Doe” defendants, plaintiff’s knowledge and statute of limitations.

Like most jurisdictions, California allows plaintiffs to amend their complaint to designate a defendant unknown to plaintiff at the time of filing the complaint, usually designated as “Doe.” (Cal. Code Civ. Proc., § 474.) An amendment made pursuant to this section will “relate back,” i.e. be deemed to have been filed at the same time as the original complaint, if made within three years of the original complaint, even if the statute of limitations ran in the interim.

Williams stressed that the Doe defendant procedure is “‘available only when the plaintiff is actually ignorant of the facts establishing a cause of action against the party to be substituted for a Doe.’” In other words, “[i]gnorance of the facts giving rise to a cause of action is the ‘ignorance’ required by section 474, and the pivotal question is ‘did plaintiff know facts’ not ‘did plaintiff know or believe that he had a cause of action based on those facts?’”

In Williams, plaintiffs knew before they filed the original complaint that their father died of mesothelioma, that asbestos was the cause of the mesothelioma, and that the father purchased defendant’s asbestos-containing products. They “knew most of the story.” This was enough that the Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s decision to dismiss the wrongful death claims as outside the statute of limitations.

2. Nursing services provided by family members to decedent prior to death are recoverable damages.

Williams reaffirmed that California allows plaintiffs to recover the value of nursing services provided to the injured plaintiff by a family member, even in the absence of an agreement or an expectation of payment.

3. Future home care that would have been provided to a spouse is recoverable up until death, not after.

Under California’s survival law, decedents’ personal representative or successor in interest can recover the decedent’s other pecuniary losses incurred before death. (Cal. Code of Civ. Proc., § 377.34.) Here, plaintiffs sought to recover the value of around the clock nursing care that decedent would have provided to his wife but for his death.

Williams ruled that section 377.34 limited recoverable damages to those incurred prior to death. Plaintiffs relied on Overly v. Ingalls Shipbuilding, Inc. (1999) 74 Cal.App.4th 164, 171, where plaintiffs attempted to recover the value of household services as income post death, even though the dying husband was still alive. The Williams court found Overly inapplicable, because it did not deal with a survival action. Furthermore, the plain language of the statute only allowed for the recovery of penalty and punitive damages incurred after decedent’s death and thus intentionally excluded other categories of damages decedent would have been entitled to had he lived. The Williams court stated that survival action damages are narrowly limited to “the loss or damage that the decedent sustained or incurred before death,” which by definition excludes future damages.

4. Cautions for settlement offers to multiple plaintiffs.

Here, as in many asbestos defense cases, plaintiffs had both a wrongful death and a survival claim. Defendant offered a single unapportioned sum in exchange for dismissal, “contingent upon acceptance by all plaintiffs as it is the intention of defendant to obtain a full and final resolution of all claims asserted by plaintiffs in this matter.” This offer did not qualify for cost-shifting, even though plaintiffs’ recovery was less than the offer amount. (Cal. Code Civ. Proc. § 998; cf. Fed. R. Civ. Proc. 67.)

The offer fell afoul of “the general rule … that a section 998 offer to multiple plaintiffs is valid only if it is expressly apportioned among them and not conditioned on acceptance by all of them.” An exception exists when one or more plaintiffs have a “unity of interest such that there is a single, indivisible injury.” A unity of interest exists for example when spouses suffer injury to community property. There is no such “unity” as between multiple survival and wrongful death claimants.

This does not mean a defendant cannot make such an offer, or that plaintiffs cannot accept one. It does however mean that such an offer will not shift costs to plaintiffs even if they fail to beat it at trial.

Conclusion

The Williams decision is a double-edged sword for defendants. On the one hand, it puts plaintiffs on notice to timely replace “Does” or face statute of limitation issues. On the other, it increases the scope of recoverable damages in survival actions to encompass fees gratuitously provided by family members. It also reminds parties (usually defendants) to carefully draft settlement agreements and appropriately apportion amounts to each cause of action and to each plaintiff without a condition for all to accept. It also shows the proper stance on the application of lost years’ damages, which hopefully shall limit the plaintiffs’ bar’s future attempts in claiming improper damages. So counsel, pay attention to the small facts and don’t cut corner with your settlements. In the famous words of Rodney Lavoie Jr. (survival Boston contestant), “this ain’t a campin’ trip. This is suhvivah!” (at least for your client’s pocket).

Illinois Appellate Court Reverses $4.6M Verdict: No Duty If No Knowledge of Product Risks, and Presence on Site Not Enough for Causation

On Sept. 5, 2018, an Illinois appellate court reversed a McLean County $4.6 million jury verdict against defendant Hobart Brothers Company on two grounds that offer hope to defendants in other cases. First, the court ruled that the defendant owed no duty to warn if defendant and the industry were unaware of a hazard in their asbestos-containing product at the time of plaintiff’s exposure, even if they were aware of the dangers of raw asbestos. Second, the court ruled that the mere presence of a defendant’s product at plaintiff’s workplace is insufficient evidence that the defendant’s product was a substantial cause of plaintiff’s mesothelioma.

BACKGROUND

Plaintiff brought suit against defendant for failure to warn of the dangerousness of its product—Hobart 6010 welding stick electrodes, which contained chrysotile asbestos in the flux. Plaintiff himself did not use the Hobart 6010 welding rods. Rather, he testified that for seven months in 1962 and 1963, stick welders using those rods worked on a grated mezzanine above his work area, and that the used stubs of the stick welders’ 6010 welding rods would fall through the grated mezzanine floor, onto the floor below where plaintiff performed spot-welding. Plaintiff also testified that each day, he had to walk by the stick welders and over the mezzanine floor which was littered with welding stubs.

LACK OF DUTY

The appellate court stated that whether the defendant had a duty, in 1962 and 1963, to warn about its welding rods depended on whether, in 1962 or 1963, knowledge existed in the industry of the dangerous propensity of the defendant’s welding rods.

Although there was evidence that, in 1962 and 1963, knowledge existed in the industry of the dangerous propensity of raw asbestos, the court made “a crucial distinction” between raw asbestos and welding rods containing encapsulated asbestos. Knowledge about raw asbestos was not evidence that knowledge existed in the industry that this product—the Hobart 6010 welding rod—was harmful. The appellate court ultimately found that the record contained no evidence of contemporaneous knowledge in the industry that welding rods with asbestos encapsulated in the flux were hazardous. The lack of knowledge resulted in a lack of duty, entitling defendant to judgment notwithstanding the verdict.

LACK OF SUBSTANTIVE CAUSATION EVIDENCE

The appellate court found that the defendant was likewise entitled to a judgment notwithstanding the verdict because the record was devoid of any evidence that defendant’s welding rods were a substantial cause of plaintiff’s mesothelioma.

The court ruled that the chestnut Illinois case of Thacker v. UNR Industries, Inc., 151 Ill. 2d 343 (1992) did not help plaintiff. Thacker involved raw asbestos, not a finished asbestos-containing product like the welding rods here. More significantly: “Proving merely that plaintiff came into frequent, close, and regular contact with welding rods manufactured by defendant would not, on the logic of Thacker, prove substantial causation any more than proving he routinely walked on floor tiles containing asbestos would prove substantial causation.” [¶77] Rather, to meet his burden of production, the plaintiff “must prove he actually inhaled respirable fibers from defendant’s welding rods—and that he inhaled enough of the fibers that one could meaningfully say the welding rods were a ‘substantial factor’ in causing his mesothelioma.” [¶78]

The appellate court ruled that the Thacker frequency, proximity and regularity criteria had not been met. For instance, although plaintiff worked on the second floor and the stick welders worked on the third floor, his work station was not directly below the grated mezzanine floor where the stick welders worked, but rather off to the side. Further, the appellate court noted that plaintiff testified that the stubs from the stick welders on the third floor fell through the grates of the mezzanine floor and onto the second floor, but that plaintiff did not testify that the stubs fell into his work area. Although plaintiff testified that his workplace was dirty, there was no evidence that the dirt indeed contained asbestos. Moreover, plaintiff never testified to seeing clouds of dust in the workplace (unlike in Thacker where various employees testified that dust from the sacks of raw asbestos was continuously visible in the air of the plant when viewed in bright light).

“For all that appears in the record, the amount of asbestos fibers released from defendant’s welding rods by rubbing them together or stepping on them was no more than the amount one would have encountered in a natural environment. Without any idea of the concentration of airborne asbestos fibers the welding rods would have produced, it would be conjectural to say the welding rods were a substantial factor in causing plaintiff’s mesothelioma.” [¶ 83]

TAKE AWAYS

Though this case involved the specific product of asbestos-containing welding rods, the potential effect on future failure-to-warn cases involving other asbestos-containing products is much broader. Importantly, the appellate court focused on the industry’s knowledge of the dangerous propensity of the manufacturer’s product itself, not on the industry’s knowledge of the dangerous propensity of asbestos generally. In so doing, the appellate court distinguished the inquiry as a product-specific issue, not as a more general asbestos issue. Going forward, each failure-to-warn case will need to be carefully considered based on its individual facts regarding the product, time frame and industry knowledge of the hazards of the product at issue at the time of exposure to determine whether a duty existed.

Furthermore, this decision may likely impact the scrutiny of causation evidence. In its application of Thacker, the appellate court discussed the need for a plaintiff to prove more than just frequent, close and regular contact with a defendant’s product; a plaintiff must also prove that he not only inhaled respirable fibers from the defendant’s product but also inhaled enough of the fibers that one could meaningfully say the defendant’s product was a substantial factor in causing a plaintiff’s disease. Additionally, the appellate court’s decision peripherally touched on alternative exposures. The extent of this decision’s impact in asbestos-related lawsuits remains to be seen. Nevertheless, it is a favorable ruling for defendants in asbestos litigation.

Read the full opinion in McKinney v. Hobart Brothers Company here.

“But Everyone Else Did It This Way:” Industry Custom Admitted in California Strict Liability Cases

The California Supreme Court has ruled that industry custom and practice may be admissible in a strict products liability action, “depend[ing] on the purpose for which the evidence is offered.” (Kim v. Toyota Motor Corp.) The decision is a win for product liability defendants. Many trial courts have ruled all industry custom and practice evidence irrelevant as to strict liability, while allowing it in negligence.

Disapproving several prior appellate decisions, the court ruled that such evidence is admissible for the purpose of “the jury’s evaluation of whether the product is as safely designed as it should be, considering the feasibility and cost of alternative designs.” In contrast, “[e]vidence that a manufacturer’s design conforms with industry custom and practice is not relevant, and therefore not admissible, to show that the manufacturer acted reasonably in adopting a challenged design and therefore cannot be held liable.” Thus, it is admissible, but never dispositive.

Mr. Kim was injured when his 2005 pickup rolled over and crashed on the Angeles Crest Highway. Plaintiffs alleged that if the pickup had been equipped with a safety feature that came as standard equipment on SUVs, it would not have rolled over. Toyota introduced evidence that no manufacturers included that feature as standard on pickup trucks. The trial court, Court of Appeal and Supreme Court all approved.

The issue … is not whether the manufacturer complied with a standard of care, as measured by prevailing industry standards, but instead whether there is something ‘wrong’ with a product’s design … because, on balance, the design is not as safe as it should be.

[E]vidence of industry custom and practice sometimes does shed light not just on the reasonableness of the manufacturer’s conduct in designing a product, but on the adequacy of the design itself.

Another description: industry practice “illuminates the relative complexity of design decisions and the trade-offs that are frequently required in the adoption of alternative designs.” The court was persuaded in part by the fact that trade association standards are admissible, and there seemed no logical reason to distinguish those standards from industry custom.

The court was also persuaded in part by the fact that plaintiffs themselves introduced industry custom evidence, such as the evidence that many manufacturers included the safety feature on their SUVs. “[T]he rule is a two-way street.”

Is this the proverbial camel’s nose in the allegorical tent, thus the beginning of the end of the rule against introducing custom and practice in strict liability cases? If no manufacturer of a particular product ever included a warning about a supposed toxin, is that relevant? If all manufacturers of a set of products allowed a trace amount of say benzene because it was so hard to eliminate it 100%, is that admissible in a strict liability case? If all employers operating a certain kind of facility adopted one level of protections against chemical exposure, even though more could almost always at least theoretically be done? The Kim decision arguably allows such evidence, but other courts may limit the effect of the decision.

There are at least two significant limitations to the reach of this decision.

First, it applies only to the risk-benefit strict liability test. Not consumer expectations, which plaintiffs more frequently assert.

Second, it applies to “industry custom and practice,” but not “state of the art.” “By ‘industry custom and practice,’ we refer to the use of the challenged design within the relevant industry—‘what is done’—as opposed to so-called ‘state of the art’ evidence, which concerns ‘what can be done’ under present technological capacity.”

This second limit may benefit defendants. What “can be done” for safety likely includes more than what others in the industry actually do.

The Kim result may be less notable in other jurisdictions: the decision recites it is joining “the majority of states that have permitted the admission of [such] evidence.” It is, however, a major development in California.

Come to Me If You Want to Talk to Me; Plaintiffs Can’t Haul Corporate Representative to Deposition in California

Alameda County has one of the most active asbestos dockets in California, with defendants from around the country. Recently, an Alameda judge ruled that non-resident corporate representatives of a non-California defendant cannot be hauled to California for deposition. This result is consistent with prior appellate authority, but many trial judges have compelled California depositions for non-California corporate representatives (known as “persons most qualified” or PMQs in California parlance and “persons most knowledgeable” or PMKs in most other jurisdictions). So this decision is welcome news for defendants seeking to avoid that expense, inconvenience and leverage to plaintiffs.

This issue is addressed by conflicting statutes. One says that a witness is not “obliged to attend as a witness before any court, judge, justice or any other officer, unless the witness is a resident within the state at the time of service.” (Cal. Code Civ. Proc., § 1989.) Other statutes allow for depositions of “an officer, director, management agent or employee” of a party to be set at locations “within the county where the action is pending” or other California locations, with no restrictions based on the residence of the witness.” (Cal. Code Civ. Proc., § 2025.250, 2025.260.)

In Brock v. Metropolitan Life Insurance, Alameda Judge Steven Kaus ruled that the first statute governs. He refused to order a California deposition for a Rhode Island witness, and instead ordered the deposition to take place within 75 miles of the defendant’s principal office in Rhode Island.

Judge Kaus relied principally on Toyota v. Motor Corporation v. Superior Court (2011) 197 Cal.App.4th 1107. Most importantly, the court of appeal found that the Discovery Act of 1986 eliminated from section 2025.260, the phrase “Notwithstanding section 1989.” “By removing the words authorizing the trial court to override section 1989 the Legislature presumptively intended to withdraw that authority which had previously existed.”

Judge Kaus rejected Plaintiffs’ argument that Toyota did not apply because the deponent in this case was a PMQ, whereas witnesses in Toyota were named individually. “From a policy viewpoint, the differentiation between named corporate employees and PMQs, who, to coin a phrase, are people too, is form over substance.”

Judge Kaus’ decision is supported by an additional case he did not cite, I-Ca Enterprises, Inc. v. Palram Americas, Inc. (2015) 235 Cal.App.4th 257 in which the California Court of Appeal also affirmed that California superior courts have no power to compel production of defendant’s nonresident PMQ.

This decision is a win for defendants. If this decision becomes a trend, it will be interesting to see how plaintiff counsel will respond. One possibility is that they will be more strategic in whose PMQ to depose. Another could be a more strategic decision in what venue to file; or at best, the decision to dismiss some defendants whose witnesses, officers or not, reside out of state.

Illinois Appellate Court Issues a Win for Out-of-State Defendants in Asbestos Litigation Involving Non-Illinois Exposures

On July 12, 2018, an appellate court in Illinois issued a long-awaited decision allowing the dismissal of an out-of-state defendant for lack of personal jurisdiction. Ruling on due process grounds, the court’s decision flies in the face of the common practice that allows plaintiffs in asbestos-related lawsuits to force out-of-state defendants into Illinois state court, including to the nation’s busiest asbestos docket, Madison County.

In Jeffs v. Ford Motor Company, plaintiff brought suit in Madison County, Illinois alleging that her deceased husband was exposed to asbestos-containing products in Michigan while working at Ford. The trial court denied Ford’s motion to dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction, and instead found that Ford was subject to general, or all-purpose, jurisdiction in Illinois based on Ford’s substantial business dealings within the state. For an in-depth discussion of the trial court’s decision, please see our related post here.

In reversing the trial court’s decision, the appellate court considered both plaintiff and defendant’s interpretations of Daimler AG v. Bauman, but ultimately allowed much of their opinion to rest on Ford’s reliance on Aspen American Insurance Co. v. Interstate Warehousing, which the court found mandates a narrow definition of general jurisdiction under Illinois law. (For a discussion of Aspen, please see our related post here.) The appellate court found Aspen controlling when rejecting plaintiff’s argument that maintaining an agent to receive service of process—a condition of doing business in Illinois as an out-of-state corporation—was equivalent to consent to general jurisdiction. It further held that any argument equating registration with consent would similarly fail.

The appellate court next considered the Illinois long-arm statute’s ability to hale Ford into Illinois state court without case-specific contacts. The Illinois long-arm is limited only by the requirement that it comport with due process standards under the Illinois Constitution and United States Constitution. Under Aspen, because Ford is incorporated in Delaware and has its principal place of business in Michigan, it may only be subject to general jurisdiction in Illinois in “exceptional circumstances.” Consistent with Daimler and Aspen, a defendant may only be subject to general jurisdiction when their contacts are so continuous and systematic that the defendant is “essentially at home in the forum.” Looking to Ford’s contacts in Illinois: 7.5% of global employees, 5% of independent dealerships, 4.5% of sales, the court determined that despite Ford’s major business contacts, it could not be said to be essentially at home in Illinois.

Despite the fact that this opinion is unpublished and unable to be cited as precedent, its potential effect on future rulings should not be undervalued. Given that a once typical ruling in Illinois trial courts has now been reversed, at least in the Fifth District, it would seem likely that trial courts will now rule in favor of defendants asserting lack of personal jurisdiction in circumstances similar to those in Jeffs. Another interesting aspect will be how this ruling will affect filings in Madison County. All of this said, the presence of a potentially viable defense may not mean the end of litigation for a defendant asserting it. There remains the potential that plaintiffs may come to the individual defendant’s home state to sue them there. In some circumstances, this may still be a favorable outcome. In others, it may be best to remain in, for example, Madison County, for a variety of reasons. This is a strategic decision that should be carefully considered based on the facts of each individual case. Nonetheless, the Jeffs decision marks a clear procedural victory for out-of-state defendants in asbestos litigation involving non-Illinois exposures.