Connecticut Supreme Court Rules That Plaintiff Must Use Expert Testimony To Prove That Work With Defendant’s Product Can Create Respirable Dust

In Bagley v. Adel Wiggins Grp., No. 19835, 2017 Conn. LEXIS 304 (Nov. 7, 2017) Connecticut’s Supreme Court directed the trial court to grant defendant’s directed verdict where there was no expert testimony that decedent’s work with defendant’s adhesive can create respirable asbestos fibers. Both negligence and strict liability claims failed because plaintiff did not prove that the subject product, an adhesive used in the manufacture of helicopter blades, was unreasonably dangerous or that the adhesive was the legal (proximate) cause of plaintiff’s decedent’s mesothelioma. The court required that plaintiff use admissible expert testimony to prove that the adhesive emitted respirable asbestos fibers, and that without such evidence a direct4ed verdict for the defense was proper.

In Bagley, the plaintiff executrix of decedent’s estate sought damages pursuant to Connecticut’s Product Liability Act (§ 52-572m et seq.) (the “CPLA”) for inter alia, wrongful death of the decedent under both negligence and strict liability theories. The evidence at trial showed that, for approximately ten (10) months in 1979 and 1980, the decedent worked as a manufacturing engineer at Sikorsky. Plaintiff’s decedent’s office was on a mezzanine above the helicopter blade shop where defendant’s adhesive, FM-37, was used to bind together interior parts of the blades. The evidence further showed that FM-37 contained 8.6% asbestos and was chiseled or sanded off if it ended up on unwanted portions of the blades. Decedent was diagnosed with mesothelioma in 2011 but acknowledged, to his medical providers before his death, that he had been exposed secondarily to asbestos through his father’s work at a shipyard.

The plaintiff called multiple witnesses during trial, including a former co-worker of the decedent and three experts. It was established at trial that the decedent was exposed to dust from the sanding of FM-37, that FM-37 contained 8.6% asbestos and that the inhalation of asbestos fibers is a cause of mesothelioma. At the close of plaintiff’s evidence, the defendant moved for a directed verdict, which was denied by the trial judge. The jury subsequently returned a verdict of $804,777 for the plaintiff on the strict liability, negligence, and loss of consortium claims. Following the jury verdict, the defendant filed a motion to set aside the verdict and for judgment notwithstanding the verdict, which was again denied by the trial court.

The Connecticut Supreme Court agreed with the defendant. Because the plaintiff failed to prove that respirable asbestos fibers were released from defendant’s adhesive, there was insufficient evidence to show either that the adhesive was dangerous, or that it was the legal cause of the decedent’s mesothelioma. Therefore, the court reasoned that the trial court improperly denied both the defendant’s motion for directed verdict and motion to set aside the verdict for motion notwithstanding the verdict. Moreover, the court directed the trial court to grant the defendant’s motion for directed verdict.

The court reasoned that, while one of the plaintiff’s experts opined that the defendant’s product could have caused the decedent’s mesothelioma, the expert’s opinion was not based on any evidence specific to defendant’s product. In this regard, none of the experts or witnesses performed any testing or examination of defendant’s or any similar product to establish that respirable asbestos fibers may be emitted when the product is sanded. The court reasoned that there was also no evidence presented that plaintiff’s causation expert had any specialized knowledge concerning how modified epoxy adhesives behave under the conditions in the Sikorsky blade shop. Because of these gaps in the evidentiary record, the court found that the jury could not have relied on this expert opinion to find that the decedent had been exposed to respirable asbestos fibers from defendant’s product.

The Bagley decision is undoubtedly a victory for defendants in the Connecticut asbestos litigation. In particular, the court made it more difficult (and more costly) for plaintiffs to pursue newer asbestos defendants or to pursue new product lines. This is especially true where plaintiffs’ experts have yet to test the new product for creation of respirable asbestos fibers during work allegedly performed by their plaintiffs. Defendants in the Connecticut asbestos litigation should be aware of the Bagley decision and the requirement for specialized testing or knowledge regarding release of asbestos fibers from a particular type of product.

A link to the Connecticut Supreme Court’s decision is available here: http://jud.ct.gov/external/supapp/Cases/AROcr/CR327/327CR114.pdf

How Perilous are Consolidated Trials?

We recently were involved in two living mesothelioma cases consolidated roughly one month before trial in Solano County, CA. The cases were fully resolved after plaintiffs’ opening statement. So how adversely, if at all, were the defendants affected by the consolidation?

Some of my friends and colleagues have tried consolidated cases in the past, but I have not. This was my first experience with such a process, and I offer some observations for those of you who may have to face this in the future.

When the cases were consolidated, there were many defendants in each of the two cases and expert discovery was underway. We proceeded through hearings on motions in limine, took literally a week to pick a jury and proceeded to opening statement. Along the way many defendants dropped out. Plaintiff counsel gave his opening statement with only two defendants left in the proceedings, both of them involved in the same single case.

Since the consolidation was ordered after we had already submitted motions in limine, this meant that we needed to reconsider our filed motions in limine. For example, the claimed exposures in the two cases arose from the same worksite, but with different durations. So our motion in limine re: excluding evidence of post-sale conduct had a much different potential impact in one case than the other. And the arguments to be made in favor of it in one case were stronger than in the other. Having the motion heard in both cases at the same time had the effect of reducing our chances of success in either of them.

In expert discovery our work was made more difficult. We had to consider that something said by an expert in one case might have an adverse impact, intended or unintended, in the other. This meant attending more expert depositions and reviewing more expert reports and notes. The same applied to coworkers identified in one case, but not the other. The court made an order that a witness identified only in one case could not testify in regards to the other, and adopted a “limiting instruction” meant to clarify things for the jury. That alleviated our concerns to some extent, but did not eliminate them. How were we to prepare for testimony by a coworker for whom we did not participate in his deposition and who had not been questioned about the products of our client?

We never reached the point of writing a verdict form, or forms, but can only think that asking one jury to decide two cases simultaneously could only increase the risk of jury confusion or error.

We did pick a jury, and that was difficult indeed. Since we were to try two cases simultaneously, the court provided our prospective jurors an extra-lengthy time estimate. This meant that many on our panel sought a “hardship” excuse. We spent more than a day dealing with hardship requests. Many, many prospective jurors were excused. This effectively eliminated from our jury pool many people that a defense attorney would be happy to see.

Voir dire was equally challenging. Once the jurors understood how one might be excused for cause, it was remarkable how many professed to be unable to be fair for one reason or another.

And throughout the voir dire there were repeated references to the fact that the jurors would be listening to evidence about two men, with the same cancer, each alleging it came from exposures at the same work site. Since we were dealing with exposures at a U S Navy shipyard, it was never contemplated that the defendants would argue there was no exposure, but it still left us to worry how the jury might be impacted by hearing about two soon-to-be-fatal cancers at the same time. And as noted above, by the time plaintiff opened, there were only two defendants left, and they were both in the same single case. So we picked a jury telling them that they would hear the cases of two men with fatal cancers, and would be in the court for many, many weeks, only to have one case settle and plaintiff open for only one case that would clearly take much less time. Many of our prospective jurors had been excused based upon a trial estimate that would have proved to be much longer than what was actually needed.

Our client resolved the case during opening statements, with the final defendant doing likewise immediately thereafter. So we will never learn how the case may have been presented and decided. But we saw enough to know that orders consolidating cases for trial make a defense lawyer’s work much more challenging.

Connecticut Superior Court Imposes Jurisdiction on Texas Defendant and Narrowly Interprets Daimler AG v. Bauman

Since the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Daimler AG v. Bauman, 134 S. Ct. 746 (2014) defendants, especially those defending product liability claims, have increasingly pursued motions to dismiss on personal jurisdiction grounds. A Connecticut superior court recently denied such a motion and held that a Texas-based manufacturing company was subject to personal jurisdiction in Connecticut, even though the defendant’s sales into Connecticut were less than .01% of total company sales, and the defendant did not sell to plaintiff’s workplace until after he worked there. Daimler held that a specific jurisdiction is limited to where the defendant’s in-state activities are continuous and systematic, and give rise to the liabilities sued on, the Connecticut decision, suggests that at least one Connecticut superior court does not consider the Daimler as greatly limiting the reach of the state’s long-arm statute.

The Honorable Judge Barbara Bellis of the Connecticut Superior Court in the Judicial District of Fairfield at Bridgeport decided Rice v. American Talc Co., No. FBT CV-15-6053658-S (Sept. 7, 2017), applying Connecticut’s broad long-arm statute:

Every foreign corporation shall be subject to suit in this state, … on any cause of action arising as follows: … (3) out of the production, manufacture or distribution of goods by such corporation with the reasonable expectation that such goods are to be used or consumed in this state and are so used or consumed, regardless of how or where the goods were produced, manufactured, marketed or sold or whether or not through the medium of independent contractors or dealers; …

Conn. Gen. Stat. § 33-929 (f)(3).

The plaintiff argued that the defendant Texas company was subject to the court’s jurisdiction under Conn. Gen. Stat. § 33-929 (f)(3) because plaintiff’s decedent was allegedly exposed to defendant’s asbestos-containing talc while working at an American Standard plant in Connecticut. Plaintiff further argued that the defendant had a reasonable expectation that its products would be used in the State of Connecticut. Defendant was a producer of talc, American Standard allegedly used that talc in the manufacturing process, and American Standard was one of the defendant’s customers. Additionally, plaintiff proffered that the defendant purposefully sought out the Connecticut market, and shipped products directly to consumers there.

Defendant, on the other hand, argued that the plaintiff’s decedent’s injuries could not have arisen out of any transaction by the defendant in Connecticut because the defendant did not acquire rights to mine allegedly asbestos-containing talc until three years after plaintiff’s decedent stopped working at the American Standard plant. Defendant manufacturer also argued that it did not have the minimum contacts in the forum state to justify jurisdiction because it never had offices, employees, or sales agents in Connecticut, had no sales to any company in the forum state after the 1970s and the few sales that it did have into Connecticut were less than .01% of its sales in any given year.

The court used a two-part test to consider the defendant’s challenge to personal jurisdiction via motion to dismiss. First, the court determined that the state’s long-arm statute authorizes jurisdiction over the defendant because the “arising… out of” language does not require a plaintiff’s cause of action and defendant’s contacts with the forum state to be causally connected. The court further agreed that a plaintiff does not need to show that the defendant solicited business in the state, only that the defendant could reasonably anticipate being sued by some person who had been solicited in Connecticut.

In Rice, the plaintiff submitted a deposition transcript stating that, when the defendant was selling products to a distributor, defendant also knew who the distributor’s customer was. Sales records established that the defendant sent a sample shipment of twenty bags of talc to Connecticut in November 1972, and sales invoices showed numerous shipments to Connecticut between 1969 and 1976. Based on this evidence, the court concluded that it was reasonably foreseeable that the defendant could be sued in Connecticut.

Under part two of the test, the court determined that whether the exercise of jurisdiction over the defendant under Connecticut’s long arm statute did not violate Constitutional principles of due process. Daimler held that a state could exercise personal jurisdiction over an out-of-state defendant if the defendant had minimum contacts with the forum state such that the suit does not offend the “traditional notions of fair play and substantial justice.” Rice found that “minimum contacts” was satisfied because the defendant shipped products to Connecticut (even if it was a small percentage of sales) and was aware of the ship-to-point when sending products to distributors. Moreover, the court reasoned that while the defendant shipped products to Connecticut after plaintiff’s decedent stopped working at the American Standard plant, the defendant shipped other products to Connecticut while the plaintiff’s decedent was allegedly exposed to defendant’s asbestos-containing products working as a painter.

Rice found that jurisdiction accorded with “fair play and substantial justice,” based on five factors: (1) the burden that the exercise of jurisdiction will impose on the defendant; (2) the interests of justice of the forum state in adjudicating the case; (3) the plaintiff’s interests in obtaining convenient and effective relief; (4) the interstate judicial system’s interest in obtaining the most efficient resolution of the controversy; and (5) the shared interest of the states in furthering substantive social policies.

Rice weighed factor (1) in favor of the defendant, stating that travel costs could be a burden because the defendant is incorporated in Texas and would have to defend a suit in Connecticut. According to the court, however, factors (2) through (5) all weighed in favor of the plaintiff. Connecticut has a strong interest in adjudicating personal injury actions involving its own citizens where the claimed injury was caused in part by a defendant who purposefully distributed products in the state. Furthermore, the plaintiff is a resident of the forum state and has an interest in obtaining convenient and effective relief in the state. The court decided that adjudicating in Connecticut would also be the most efficient use of judicial resources because the plaintiff has sued multiple defendants over a single and indivisible injury (mesothelioma). Requiring the plaintiff to maintain multiple actions in different jurisdictions would not only be inefficient, but impose a greater burden on the plaintiff than the burden of subjecting the defendant to suit in Connecticut.

The Rice decision displays that shipping products to Connecticut, even only a small fraction of a company’s sales, may be enough to reasonably foresee being sued in Connecticut. This can be enough to subject a foreign company to specific jurisdiction in Connecticut, even if the dates of sales do not overlap with the timing of the alleged injury. Additionally, solely being incorporated in a distant state and incurring travel costs during trial likely will not be sufficient to establish that the traditional notions of fair play and substantial justice have been violated.

As a trial court ruling, the Rice decision is not binding precedent. But if it is followed by other Connecticut courts, the result will be s a heavy burden on foreign corporations seeking to apply Daimler to limit Connecticut jurisdiction. There is no word yet on whether an appeal will be filed.

California Limits Take-Home Claims and Affirms That “Substantial Factor” Means More than “Possible”

A California appellate court has sided with the defendants in an alleged take-home asbestos exposure case. Petitpas v. Ford Motor Company (July 5, 2017, B245027) —Cal.App.5th—presents many strong arguments for defendants, including what is required to show that an asbestos product was a substantial factor in causing asbestos disease.

Plaintiffs Joseph and Marline Petitpas alleged that Joseph Petitpas’ work at a gas station owned by Exxon and at various construction sites brought home asbestos which injured Ms. Petitpas.

I.  Take Home Exposures – Duty Not Extended

While the appeal was pending, the California Supreme Court issued its opinion in Kesner v. Sup. Ct. (2016) 1 Cal.5th 1132. Kesner allowed take home cases to be brought in California. However, it limited those cases to household members, reasoning that “persons who live with the worker and are thus foreseeably in close and sustained contact with the worker over a significant period of time” are protected. (Id. at 1154-1155.) In Kesner, the injured person was the nephew of a worker who lived for periods of time with his uncle, who manufactured brake linings. In Petipas, Plaintiffs conceded that the parties did not live together when Mr. Petitpas worked at the Exxon station (they were married later). The court in Petipas declined Plaintiffs’ invitation to extend the duty in take home cases to non-household members. “Inviting a trial to determine whether a non-household member’s contact with the employee was ‘similar to the status of a household member’ appears to be exactly what the Supreme Court was attempting to avoid with this bright-line rule.”

II.  Substantial Factor – Probable vs. Possible

To meet their burden in an asbestos case, plaintiffs must show that there is exposure to a defendant’s product that was “in reasonable medical probability” a substantial factor in bringing about the injury. (Rutherford v. Owens-Illinois, Inc. (1997) 16 Cal.4th 953, 982.) Many factors are considered to determine if the exposures are substantial factors, including frequency, proximity and duration of the exposures. The evidence in this case merely suggested it was possible that Mr. Petitpas brought asbestos dust home on his clothing from his inspection of construction jobs. He only did this for an hour a day and returned to his office for the remainder. Neither Plaintiff testified that Ms. Petitpas shook out his clothes when washing them. Further, it was merely possible she was exposed when visiting the construction sites, because there was no active construction occurring and there was no visible dust. Mere presence of asbestos at a site was simply not sufficient to show that asbestos-containing products used at these sites was a substantial factor in causing Ms. Petitpas’ mesothelioma.

III.  Replacement Parts Doctrine – Applies to Defect as Well as Failure to Warn Claims

Ford submitted a jury instruction which stated that it was not liable for exposure to replacement brakes, clutches and gaskets on Ford vehiclesthat were manufactured by parties other than Ford. This instruction was based upon O’Neil v. Crane Co. (2012) 53 Cal.4th 335. The O’Neil decision established that a product manufacturer cannot be held liable in strict liability or negligence for harm caused by another manufacturer’s product “unless the defendant’s own product contributed substantially to the harm, or the defendant participated substantially in creating a harmful combined use of the products.” Plaintiffs objected that O’Neil only applied to failure to warn cases, and that Ford’s design was defective because “it is a Ford design that called for the installation and inclusion of asbestos-containing brake products, whether or not they were made by Ford or anyone else.” The court rejected Plaintiffs’ argument because they did not present any evidence that the Ford cars were unable to use non-asbestos parts or were somehow incompatible with non-asbestos parts.

IV.  Jury Instructions in Asbestos Cases

Plaintiffs also argued that the trial court committed error by allowing jury instructions CACI Nos. 430 and 435 to be read to the jury. Both of these instructions give the jury direction on what a “substantial factor” is under California law.  CACI No. 430, the generally applicable instruction, defines “substantial factor” as a factor that “contributed to the harm.” This Use Notes for this instruction state that it should not be read in asbestos related cancer cases.  However, Exxon argued that CACI No. 430 was applicable to it because it was a premises liability defendant, not a product manufacturer or supplier. CACI No. 435 is the instruction for asbestos cancer cases.

CACI No. 435, applicable in asbestos cases only, defines “substantial factor” as one that “contributed to the risk,” not just the harm. Plaintiffs argued that using CACI No. 430 confused the jury and imposed a greater burden on them.

The court allowed both instructions to be read. “That the Use Notes caution against giving the more general CACI No. 430 in a mesothelioma case, when the more specific instruction CACI No. 435 is more applicable, does not support a conclusion that it was error to give both instructions. CACI No. 430 is a correct statement of the law relating to substantial factor causation, even though, as Rutherford noted, more specific instructions also must be given in a mesothelioma case.”

V.  No Studies Show Take-Home Hazards from Brake Repair

The jury found that Exxon did not know, and should not have reasonably known, that Mr. Petitpas’ work at the gas station put Ms. Petitpas at unreasonable risk.

Plaintiffs argued that because the management at Exxon refineries knew about the hazards of asbestos, their agents at service stations also knew. The court did not agree with this argument. Since the jury only heard evidence that conditions at other locations posed a risk to other classes of employees (which Exxon knew about), the jury properly found that Exxon did not know about the risks at its service stations.

The Petitpas court went so far as to suggest that had the jury found otherwise, it would have to be reversed. Dr. Castleman admitted that there were no studies “of any statistical power…that speak of the mesothelioma risk of mechanics that do brake repair work” and that no such studies exist today. Plaintiff’s expert Dr. Horn also conceded this fact. Therefore, the court reasoned, “There was no evidence linking asbestos exposure to occasional bystanders who were near automotive workers as they did brake work.” The court’s conclusion in Petitpas can and should be used as an argument in all brake take-home repair cases.

This decision bodes well for defendants challenging plaintiffs’ often broad and sweeping allegations in asbestos cases.

No Jurisdiction Over Out-of-State Defendant Registered to Do Business in Missouri

The Missouri Supreme Court recently held that an out-of-state defendant was not subject to jurisdiction in Missouri simply because it was registered to do business in Missouri and conducted activities there similar to those in other states. This decision reinforces the Missouri judiciary’s recent trend of limiting personal jurisdiction in cases with out-of-state defendants and is consistent with decisions around the country holding that registration does not confer jurisdiction.

In State ex rel. Norfolk Southern Railroad Co. v. The Honorable Collen Dolan, 2017 Mo. LEXIS 66 (Mo. Feb. 28, 2017) the Supreme Court of Missouri dismissed Norfolk Southern Railway Company (“Norfolk”) for lack of personal jurisdiction. The plaintiff brought suit against Norfolk for injuries he sustained while employed in Indiana. Norfolk is principally located and incorporated in Virginia. Norfolk annually complies with Missouri’s foreign business registration statutes by registering with Missouri and designating a registered agent for service of process. Norfolk conducts substantial business and owns property in Missouri. However, Norfolk also operates railroad tracks and conducts substantial business in at least 22 states and its business in Missouri accounts for only 2 percent of its nationwide business activity.

The Missouri Supreme Court determined that Norfolk was subject to neither general nor specific jurisdiction. Under the governing United States Supreme Court decision, Daimler AG v. Bauman,134 S. Ct. 746, 754 (2014), a court can normally exercise general jurisdiction over a corporation only when the corporation’s place of incorporation or its principal place of business is in the forum state. Because Norfolk was not headquartered or incorporated in Missouri, the court evaluated whether Norfolk represented an “exceptional case” where the contacts are so substantial and of such a nature as to render the corporation at home in that State.

Applying Daimler, the Missouri Supreme Court explained that such an exceptional case requires comparing the corporation’s activities in the forum state with its activities in other states through “an appraisal of a corporation’s activities in their entirety, nationwide and worldwide.” Because Norfolk’s business in Missouri constitutes only 2% percent of its total revenue and Norfolk conducts substantial business in 22 other states, the court declined to exert general jurisdiction over Norfolk.

Plaintiff argued, consistent with a multitude of rulings in Missouri’s lower courts, that Norfolk’s registration as a foreign corporation in Missouri equated to its consent to personal jurisdiction in Missouri. The court rejected this argument, holding that a foreign corporation’s business registration in Missouri “does not provide an independent basis for broadening Missouri’s personal jurisdiction to include suits unrelated to the corporation’s activities in Missouri when the usual bases for general jurisdiction are not present.”

The court also rejected multiple theories advanced by plaintiff to support specific jurisdiction over Norfolk. A court has specific jurisdiction if the defendant’s acts took place in the forum state, and here, the plaintiff pleaded no facts alleging the injury arose from Norfolk’s Missouri activities. Further, the Norfolk court found the fact that Norfolk engaged in the same “type” of business in the forum state and the state where the injury occurred irrelevant. A ruling otherwise would render every national corporation subject to specific jurisdiction in every state in which it conducted business regardless of where the injury occurred.

California Court Concludes Sarcastic Comment Sufficient For Punitive Damages

Earlier this month, a California appellate court ruled that an offhand remark by a corporate employee may be sufficient to award punitive damages. The court also addressed issues related to the “every-exposure” theory, without wading directly into the every-exposure debate.

In Phillips v. Honeywell International Inc. (March 17, 2017. Case F070761) — Cal.App.5th –, the court held that the trial court properly admitted a 1966 letter from an employee who was not an officer, director, or managing agent. The letter is well known (described in the opinion as “infamous”) in asbestos litigation as “the E.A. Martin letter,” and is the frequent subject of in limine motions. Martin was a purchasing director, and he was writing to one of his asbestos suppliers, sarcastically addressing an article in Chemical Week magazine: “[I]f you have enjoyed a good life while working with asbestos products why not die from it. There’s got to be some cause.”

The court held that the letter served as circumstantial evidence that the company was aware that asbestos could be a potential health hazard years before it ceased using asbestos, and was sufficient to support an award of $3.5 million in punitive damages (of a total $5.8 million award).

The admittance of the letter has broad implications, suggesting that any stray remark – even a sarcastic expression of confidence in a product ingredient by a corporate employee who was not in the upper echelon – can serve to support a finding of massive punitive damages.

As the California court noted, the same letter has been both admitted and rejected by multiple other courts. For example, an Illinois appellate court pronounced the letter “a revealing historical anecdote that may give us insight into the thinking within the asbestos industry in 1966, but it was irrelevant. A persuasive argument can also be made that even if it had some modest relevance, it was inflammatory, and whatever probative value it had was outweighed by its prejudicial effect.” (Dukes v. Pneumo Abex Corp. (2008) 386 Ill.App.3d 425, 439.)

In an unpublished portion of the decision (meaning it may not be cited as precedent in California, though it may be citable elsewhere), Phillips also addressed the split in authority regarding the “every-exposure” (a.k.a. “no safe dose”) theory versus the “every-identified-exposure” theory in asbestos litigation. Under the every-exposure theory of causation, “every exposure to asbestos fibers is a substantial factor in causing disease, regardless of fiber type or dose, so long as the fibers are traceable to a product and are not merely ‘background’ fibers found in the ambient air.” The same defendant lost a challenge to that theory in Davis v. Honeywell International Inc. (2016) 245 Cal.App.4th 477, and sought to have the Phillips court part ways with Davis. Instead, the Phillips court found that the expert had espoused the subtly different “every-identified-exposure” theory.

In reaching this conclusion, the Phillips court quoted an Ohio decision approvingly: “Although some courts have rejected the ‘each and every exposure’ theory, others have distinguished testimony suggesting a de minimis exposure to asbestos could cause mesothelioma from testimony that each significant exposure to asbestos could be a cause.” The California court found that this theory was “consistent with California law addressing proof of causation in asbestos-related cancer cases,” in that it considered only significant and identifiable exposures in determining the risk of the disease.

St. Louis Jurisdiction Determined As of Now, Not At Time of Exposure Decades Ago

A St. Louis court recently granted a defense motion to dismiss on jurisdictional grounds, which may signal an increased willingness to decline to impose jurisdiction over foreign corporations that do no currently conduct business in Missouri. The court’s analysis measured the corporation’s contacts at the present time, not at the time of exposure decades ago. This ruling is in opposition of the trend of allowing plaintiffs to forum shop in the 22nd Judicial Circuit in the City of St. Louis, which has quadrupled its asbestos-related lawsuits since 2010 and is now the fourth largest asbestos docket in the country.

In McGill v. Conwed, plaintiff allegedly sustained occupational exposure to asbestos while working as a laborer and carpenter in Kansas, Oklahoma, and Missouri from 1966 to 1976. During his deposition, plaintiff testified that his work with Conwed ceiling tiles occurred within Kansas. Conwed is not incorporated or principally located in Missouri. Conwed ceased manufacturing ceiling tiles in 1985.

As a result, Conwed moved to dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction. Conwed argued that Missouri lacks specific jurisdiction because the claim does not arise out of any conduct within Missouri. Conwed argued that the court lacked general jurisdiction because Conwed ceased manufacturing operations in Missouri in 1985; has not conducted business in Missouri since that time; is not registered to do business in Missouri; has no subsidiary in Missouri; does not have a registered agent in Missouri; and does not own property or advertise in Missouri.

Conwed bolstered its argument with another recent St. Louis case, Smith v. Union Carbide, in which the court granted a motion to dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction filed by DuPont, a company with greater contacts to Missouri. In that case, the claim emanated from alleged exposure to DuPont in Oklahoma, therefore defeating specific jurisdiction. While DuPont was neither incorporated nor had its principal place of business in Missouri, it had a subsidiary and registered agent in Missouri. Nonetheless, DuPont’s lack of incorporation and principal place of business in Missouri was sufficient for the court to decline to exert general personal jurisdiction.

On January 19, 2017, Judge Joan Moriarty, one of two primary asbestos judges in St. Louis, granted Conwed’s motion to dismiss. Judge Moriarty agreed that no basis existed to assert special jurisdiction because the claim against Conwed did not arise out of exposure to any Conwed product or service in Missouri. Further, Judge Moriarty declined to exert general jurisdiction over Conwed, stating that “Conwed undeniably would have been amenable to suit in Missouri prior to 1985, when it did regular and systematic business in Missouri. But now it has no business in Missouri, and has not for over 30 years.” Because Conwed did not currently have systemic, continuous, and substantial connections with Missouri, there was no general personal jurisdiction. Notably, the court reached its decision without mentioning the United States Supreme Court’s ruling in Daimler AG v. Bauman, the controlling decision on personal jurisdiction.

This ruling has positive ramifications for out-of-state defendants litigating asbestos products liability claims in St. Louis. As Judge Moriarty is one of only two asbestos judges presiding in St. Louis, it can be expected that the decision in McGill v. Conwed will result in an increase in the amount of out-of-state defendants (particularly those who are not currently registered to do business in Missouri) filing and winning personal jurisdiction motions.

Government Contractor Defense Victory in California

A recent California decision describes a set of facts in which the government contractor defense can be successfully applied. Such circumstances have been few and far between.

In Kase v. Metalclad Insulation Corp., the appeal was from an order by San Francisco’s soon-to-be Presiding Judge Teri Jackson granting summary judgment to defendant.

12-2Mr. Kase claimed exposure to asbestos-containing insulation products while working on US Navy nuclear submarines in the 1970’s. The court pointed out that unlike other defendants who have in the past unsuccessfully attempted to assert the defense, Metalclad did not design or produce a piece of hardware or equipment. Instead, Metalclad was a broker of Unibestos. The court finds the government contractor defense was properly asserted for Metalclad while simultaneously acknowledging other decisions that have denied its application for equipment manufacturers. We are left with the predicament wherein a broker who distributes Unibestos can assert the government contractor defense, whereas an equipment manufacturer who has its products insulated with Unibestos cannot. The court notes that the record demonstrated that the Unibestos product at issue was never in the possession of Metalclad. Instead, Metalclad had only arranged for its delivery to the shipyard.

The opinion is lengthy, 28 pages, and includes several points benefitting potential government contractor defendants, including:

  • There is no “off the shelf” limitation to the application of the defense.
  • Products “incidentally sold commercially” may still qualify as military equipment.
  • Insulation specifications required, first explicitly and later impliedly, the use of asbestos. The court ruled that that if only asbestos will fulfill the performance requirements, then it is not necessary that the government specifications explicitly use the word asbestos. “Performance requirements can mandate a design choice, and the uncontroverted evidence is that it did so in this case.”
  • There was no duty to warn as the Navy “was well aware of the potential hazards of asbestos.”
  • Similarly, although this case did not involve “back and forth” negotiations characteristic of other successful government contractor defenses, that not necessary. “We recognize this is not a case involving substantial “back and forth” between a government agency and a contractor designing a unique piece of equipment, such as an aircraft or transport vehicle. [Citations omitted] No case involving that scenario, however, has involved the decades of naval studies and investigations, and the history of naval specifications, unique to the universe of asbestos cases.”
  • Unibestos had asbestos warnings on its insulation products not later than 1968.

While this decision is certainly good news for Metalclad and other similarly situated defendants, other courts may limit it to the specific facts of this case. It seems odd that a company that arranges for the delivery of boxes of Unibestos to the shipyard is protected from liability, while the company that ships its pumps to the same shipyard with comparatively miniscule rings of asbestos containing packing inside their pumps nevertheless is frequently denied the same defense. Perhaps arguing this inconsistency will gain some traction for government contractor equipment manufacturers in the future.

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.

Conclusions

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.