Last Defendant at Trial, You Are Not Alone: Apportionment Under New Jersey Law

Last week in the Rowe v. Bell & Gossett decision, a unanimous New Jersey Supreme Court found that an asbestos defendant at trial may demonstrate settling co-defendants’ liability and their share of fault by using the co-defendants’ answers to interrogatories and corporate representative depositions from the pending or prior asbestos litigations. This evidence, along with plaintiff’s testimony on product usage and plaintiff’s own expert’s testimony on cross-examination, was sufficient to show that each settling defendant’s product was a substantial factor in causing injury and allow a jury to allocate fault. Thus, the court has provided guidance on how and not just that a remaining defendant may reduce its fault at trial. Under New Jersey’s joint tortfeasor law, as in many other jurisdictions, when two or more persons are jointly and severally liable for the same tort and injury, the jury must allocate fault between and among the tortfeasors, regardless of whether they all remain parties to the litigation.

The Supreme Court’s decision will require plaintiffs to fully understand the relative responsibilities among defendants before risking a settlement with some but not all of them. This will undoubtedly delay or completely prevent settlement opportunities, especially for parties of products that plaintiff most regularly used during his lifetime.

From a defense perspective, this decision endorses a streamlined approach for proving cross-claims at trial. non-settling defendant must simply be careful to timely and fully disclose its intent to demonstrate such non-parties’ liability at trial. With proper notice, the non-settling defendant may use the settling defendants’ written interrogatory answers, corporate representative depositions, responses to admissions, prior trial testimony, if any, or call them as a live witness if the content of these statements were made “against the party’s interest.”

In Rowe, plaintiff argued that interrogatory responses and corporate representative depositions were impermissible hearsay that could only be used, if at all, against the declarant co-defendants, not against plaintiff. The Supreme Court rejected that argument, finding that these statements were admissible under New Jersey Rule of Evidence 803(c)(25) because they were made by the corporate defendant and were “so far contrary to the [corporation’s] pecuniary, proprietary, or social interest, or so far tended to subject [that defendant] to civil or criminal liability . . . that a reasonable person in [that defendant’s] position would not have made the statement unless the person believed it to be true.” In Rowe, “when the relevant statements were made, each declarant was a defendant in this case or in other asbestos product liability cases.” Moreover, such statements admitted corporate relationships including potential successor liability, the manufacture or sale of goods containing asbestos, or the manufacture or sale of goods without warnings related to asbestos.

The Appellate Division had ruled that these statements were not “against interest” because “the existence of asbestos-containing products and the absence of warnings are objective, well-known historical facts that the settling defendants could not avoid acknowledging in the face of incontrovertible proof.” The Supreme Court rejected this argument, noting that statements against interest need not be on novel or controversial issues, or the only proof of a given claim. Thus, these statements were properly admitted by the trial judge and considered by the jury to apportion fault.

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.

Reichhold, Inc. Prevails In New Jersey CERCLA Case

On June 22, 2009, after an six-week bench trial in the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey, we achieved a resounding victory for our client, Reichhold Inc., in an environmental cost recovery litigation. Reichhold v. USMRC et al, 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 52471. The case addressed claims relating to the cleanup of a contaminated chemical plant site formerly owned by Reichhold in Carteret, New Jersey along the Arthur Kill. The case was brought pursuant to the federal CERCLA and New Jersey Spill Act statutes, as well as a 1994 settlement agreement between the parties.

Defendant United States Metals Refining Co. ("USMRC"), which owned the site prior to Reichhold, had argued that the settlement agreement prohibited Reichhold from bringing the claims in the instant lawsuit. The Court rejected USMRC’s argument and held that, because virtually all of Reichhold’s claims constituted "New Environmental Obligations" under the settlement agreement, they were actionable. The Court also dismissed every defense to liability raised by the defendant, including the defense that Reichhold’s claims were time-barred.

In its Final Judgment, the Court awarded Reichhold $1,209,719 for investigation and cleanup costs that Reichhold had incurred while addressing metals contamination caused by USMRC’s industrial operations. The Court also entered a declaratory judgment requiring USMRC to pay certain of Reichhold’s future cleanup costs.

Our success at trial was attributable, in part, to our being able to discredit the expert testimony of USMRC’s experts. In conjunction with an aerial photogrammetrist, USMRC’s environmental engineering expert used historical aerial photographs of the site taken over a 60-year period to develop computer-generated surface contour maps that purported to depict Reichhold’s excavation and fill activities at the site over time. Because of these topographical maps, USMRC’s experts argued that Reichhold had caused extensive metals contamination at the site in the 1960’s and 1970’s by using contaminated fill in low lying areas of the property. On the basis of the cross-examination of defendants’ experts by me and my partner, Sheila A. Woolson, the Court rejected the experts’ testimony and held that the conclusions based on the photogrammetry performed were unconvincing. Consequently, the Court placed no reliance on the cut and fill evidence presented. In contrast, the Court accepted the testimony of Reichhold’s witnesses that Reichhold had not disposed of any metals containing contamination at the site.

Over the last several months, federal and state environmental regulatory agencies have devoted substantial regulatory attention to New Jersey waterways and rivers in the northwestern portion of the state that have been contaminated with metals, declaring some of them to be federal Superfund sites. In light of these events, the judicial determination that the metals contamination on the southern edge of the property was solely due to our adversaries’ prior disposal activity was timely. The Opinion is perhaps the first trial court decision to apply the apportionment principles articulated in the Supreme Court’s May 2009 decision in Burlington Northern.