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.

Connecticut Rejects Asbestos Plaintiff’s Effort to Assert Environmental Exposure Claim

11-23A Connecticut state court jury recently returned a defense verdict in case alleging injury from exposure to asbestos that drifted into the air from a facility, but in doing so thrust to the forefront the potential of future similar claims in Connecticut. In Lagerberg v. Armstrong International, Inc., plaintiffs’ decedent was a former factory worker at Rogers Corporation in Killingly, Connecticut between 1958 and 1978. Rogers conceded that the decedent was exposed to raw asbestos and asbestos-containing materials during his employment at the facility. In an effort to avoid the exclusivity of the Connecticut Workers’ Compensation Act, plaintiffs also alleged that decedent’s condition was then exacerbated by exposure to airborne asbestos particles that drifted away from the plant to his neighborhood, which at times was as close as 830 feet from the Rogers facility and at other times as far away as several miles.

In pitching this theory to the jury, plaintiffs highlighted at length that even when decedent had clocked out for the day, he was still being exposed to asbestos when he went home, when he was around town at the grocery store, the post office, Little League, running errands and visiting friends and family. Plaintiffs’ counsel made every effort to paint a picture of constant and cumulative exposure that was a substantial contributing cause of the decedent’s mesothelioma.

Defendant conceded causation due to the occupational exposures. Was this a risky approach? Not really, because to argue otherwise would have resulted in a loss of credibility with the jury. The defense argued that in the face of that massive work place exposure, these “environmental” claims were specious.

Under Connecticut law, negligence contributes materially to the production of an injury if its causative effects remain in active operation until the moment of injury, or at least until the setting in motion of the final active injurious force which immediately produces or precedes the injury. By this definition, negligence which makes only a remote, a trivial or an inconsequential contribution to the production of an injury is not a substantial factor in bringing about the injury, and thus cannot be proximate cause of the injury. See Doe v. Manheimer, 212 Conn. 748, 757-58 (1989) quoting Kowal v. Hohfer, 181 Conn. 355, 359-60 (1980). Therefore, the court instructed the jury that it had to find that the environmental exposure in and of itself was sufficient to cause the decedent’s mesothelioma and thereafter to apply a substantial factor analysis. Ultimately, the jury found that the inhaling of asbestos particles by the Plaintiffs’ decedent away from the Rogers’ facility was not the proximate cause (substantial factor) of decedent’s malignant mesothelioma. While the jury has reached a verdict in this case, the story isn’t yet over. Recently, counsel for the Lagerberg family filed a motion seeking a new trial on the grounds of discovery of new evidence. Whether this new evidence will entitle Plaintiffs to a new trial has yet to be determined.

Putting aside the issue of a potential new trial in Lagerberg, certain questions must be asked about the underlying verdict and its ramifications moving forward. Would a purely environmental exposure claim receive the same treatment from a Connecticut jury? In other words, would a plaintiff claiming asbestos-related disease, with no occupational exposure but solely based upon living within close proximity to a manufacturing facility that used raw asbestos, be able to establish substantial factor causation? The answers to those questions will likely be answered soon, as the law firm that represented the plaintiffs in Lagerberg filed that precise claim against Rogers Corporation and others within a month of the Lagerberg verdict.

Trademark Licensors As “Apparent Manufacturers” In Product Liability Cases

Although by no means a “hell hole” jurisdiction, it is difficult for a peripheral asbestos defendant to obtain summary judgment in Bridgeport Superior Court in Connecticut. Once summary judgment is denied, many asbestos defendants with questionable liability will often settle out rather than risk the financial exposure of an adverse result in a mesothelioma jury trial.  It is helpful for a company to have a well thought out appellate strategy in mind before selecting a jury in that jurisdiction.  One recent asbestos trial did not turn out well for a trade association defendant.. 

On August 24, 2012, the Bridgeport Superior Court denied post-trial motions filed by Tile Council of North America (“Tile Council”) in Hannibal Saldibar v. A.O. Smith Corp. The Tile Council is a trade association that developed and patented an asbestos-containing formula for dry set mortar. This jury verdict raises the issue whether a trademark licensor may be held liable under a theory of strict liability as the “apparent manufacturer” despite having never manufactured or sold the product at issue.  The Apparent Manufacturer Doctrine seeks to hold the licensor vicariously liable for defective products manufactured by the licensee.

Over the past 50 years, trademark licensing has emerged as a preferred method of producing and marketing goods in the U.S.  According to David J. Franklyn, a professor at Northern Kentucky University, who wrote an article titled, "The Apparent Manufacturer Doctrine, Trademark Licensors and Third Restatement of Torts" in the Case Western Reserve Law Review, some $50 billion dollars of licensed goods are sold each year. 

The Bridgeport Superior Court’s decision is arguably a departure from the precedent established in Burkert v. Petrol Plus of Naugatuck, Inc., 216 Conn. 65 (1990), a well reasoned decision by the Supreme Court of Connecticut. The principal issue in Burkert was whether the distributor of an allegedly defective product, an automatic transmission fluid, was entitled to indemnification against GM, the licensor of a trademark under which the allegedly defective product was marketed. GM, the trademark licensor, did not participate in the production, marketing or distribution of the product.

In Burkert, the Connecticut Supreme Court made two significant rulings: (1) because GM did no more than allow others to use its Dexron® II trademark in the production, marketing and distribution of transmission fluid, absent any further involvement in the stream of commerce, GM could not be deemed a seller under Connecticut’s Product Liability Act; and (2) plaintiff could not rely upon Section 400 of the Restatement of Torts (Second) because that section applied only to those involved in the sale, lease, gift or loan of a product.

The Burkert court cited with approval the holdings of courts in other jurisdictions explicitly holding that liability against a trademark licensor under the Apparent Manufacturer Doctrine is appropriate only when the licensor is determined to have been significantly involved in the manufacturing, marketing or distribution of the defective product. Regardless of whether the plaintiff is proceeding on an “apparent manufacturer” or an “enterprise” theory of liability, the majority of cases emphasize the licensor’s degree of control and involvement exercised over design, manufacturer and sale.
 

The plaintiff in Saldibar may have raised sufficient factual issues to avoid summary judgment but arguably should not have prevailed on post-trial motions. In rejecting Tile Council’s argument that it was not a “product manufacturer” or “product seller” pursuant to the Connecticut Product Liability Act, the court found that the Tile Council was sufficiently involved in the distribution, marketing and manufacture of its products to “fall within the ambit of the product liability statute.” To add insult to injury, the trial court not only refused to set aside a $1,500,000 verdict in compensatory damages, plus $100,000 in loss of consortium damages, but also upheld an award of $800,000 in punitive damages based on the jury’s finding that Tile Council acted with “reckless disregard” for the safety of product users. Based upon this holding, a trademark licensor in Connecticut is potentially liable for punitive damages resulting from injuries caused by a product it neither manufactured nor sold.
 

Although the involvement of Tile Council may have been more extensive than that evidenced by GM, the trademark licensor in Burkert, it is questionable whether these factual distinctions warranted a finding of liability, let alone an award of punitive damages. In Saldibar, for example, the court relied upon testimony by a co-defendant, H.B. Fuller, that Tile Council had “developed a market for these products, based upon their formulas, based upon their trademark and hallmark, if you will, of an assurance that if you buy products that contain this logo, you can be sure that it did work.” There us absolutely no  probative value to this testimony.  On the other hand,  If the Plaintiff or Plaintiff’s employer had provided testimony that he relied on the presence of the licensor’s logo for assurance that the product was safe, it may have raised a reliance issue. But The co-defendant’s testimony, cited by the trial court, is not relevant to the issue of reliance because it did not purchase the product.  Of more importance is that it does not appear Plaintiff was induced to purchase the asbestos-containing product because of the licensor’s involvement. 

Arguably, the licensor should only be potentially liable (as a threshold matter) when it induces the consumer to purchase the product or where plaintiffs can prove that they reasonably relied on the trademark.

What was apparently fatal to Tile Council was the trial court’s determination that Tile Council set forth detailed specifications governing “all aspects” of the product, including the percentage and grade of the asbestos fiber to be used. Moreover, in Saldibar, Tile Council drafted the product warnings that appeared on the product. On the basis of these facts, the trial court distinguished Saldibar from Burkert.

Saldibar raises some troubling concerns from a policy standpoint. Saldibar rewards conduct by a licensor that distances it from the ultimate consumer. If Tile Council was in the best position to recommend warnings for the product label, why should this activity alone become a basis for imposing vicarioius liability?  The issue in Saldibar was not whether the warnings were adequate to warn against the risks of asbestos use, but whether the warnings were sufficient to bring Tile Council under the ambit of the Connecticut Product Liability Act as a “apparent manufacturer.” There is no indication that Plaintiff ever read the warnings or that an alleged failure to warn was a proximate cause of plaintiff’s injury. As a practical matter, a plaintiff should be required to demonstrate that he saw the licensor’s logo and was induced to purchase the product on that basis. Whether there was detrimental reliance by the product purchaser was not an issue considered by the court.