Greater Transparency re: Asbestos trust claims soon to be ordered in Los Angeles

The Superior Court for the County of Los Angeles for many years now has handled a busy asbestos docket with numerous cases proceeding through trial and many more resolved before a verdict is rendered.  The court handles cases brought by many prominent plaintiff firms with national presences.  It is therefore interesting to see this court follow the lead of other courts and various legislative bodies in preparing to mandate greater transparency regarding claims made to bankruptcy trusts.

The asbestos docket in Los Angeles is managed by Judge Emilie Elias.  Judge Elias has conducted a series of meetings/hearings regarding the proper scope of discovery regarding claims made to bankruptcy trusts with argument and briefing submitted on behalf of many defendants and several prominent plaintiff firms. The court recently issued an order regarding its tentative decision regarding these issues.

Attached is a copy of that recent order.  The court has requested comments to this proposal on or before March 20, 2015.  In general, this order is extremely favorable to Defendants. The proposed order makes the following significant additions to the discovery requirements in all cases in the Los Angeles asbestos docket:

    1. An authorization from plaintiff for release of claimant information submitted to an asbestos bankruptcy trust;
    2. Additional interrogatories included within the “standard” discovery.  The existing discovery included 4 questions regarding claims to bankruptcy trusts.  These are now augmented by 6 more questions requiring extensive information regarding exposure to the products of, or on the premises of, dozens of identified trusts.  Further the new order will require that such responses be updated not later than 5 days before trial, regardless of whether a claim has been made or will be made to such bankrupt entity.
    3. Broad orders requiring the disclosure of claims and any other communications with all trusts. In particular the court finds “all documents sent to, received from, shown to, exchanged with, or otherwise disclosed to any established or pending asbestos trust funds — for any purpose” to be discoverable. The order indicates that “Plaintiffs shall produce” all such materials;
    4. The production of documents ordered by the court further includes “ballots, questionnaires, submitted or filed forms, summaries, claims, ‘placeholder’ claims, request for extensions, requests for deferrals, all supporting documentation, all related communications, and all documents filed … pursuant to Rule 2019 of the Federal Rules of Bankruptcy Procedure.”   This order is meant to require production of some of the required and verified disclosures that must be made by any “groups, committees and entities” that represent “multiple creditors” in a Ch.  9 or 11 proceeding. In past asbestos-related bankruptcies, these filings were not generally accessible to the public as they would be in a normal bankruptcy.  Garlock had made attempts to obtain such documents, but the bankruptcy courts had  rejected those attempts. (Therefore Judge Elias’ order specifically ordering the production of these may be the first discovery order to specifically mention them in this context.)
    5. The court also requires production of signed affidavits or declarations that “have been circulated to someone other than plaintiff and plaintiff’s counsel” as they are not privileged.  Thus any declaration sent to a trust must be disclosed.

The court has indicated that these changes, if finalized, will be applicable to all cases filed after Feb. 1, 2015 and will be applicable for only a 6 month trial period, but the expiration of the trial period will not sunset the order unless further modified.  Defendants have filed a brief seeking clarification of this limited period of application, and perhaps other components of the order.  The plaintiffs’ bar has consistently shown a great deal of interest in this order and it is likely that they will file additional papers and perhaps even seek appellate review. However, in the meantime, this prospective order is good news for the defense seeking further transparency on this issue.