Does CERCLA's "Act Of God" Defense Apply In Climate Change Litigation

In a decision issued on May 2, 2014, the Second Circuit held, in Cedar & Washington Assocs. LLC v. Port Auth. of N.Y. & N.J, 2074 BL 123476,2d Cir., No. 10- 4197, that the "act of war" affirmative defense relieved World Trade Center owners and lessees and airlines of Superfund liability for dust that infiltrated a building a block away after the collapse of the Twin Towers on 9/11.

The Second Circuit held that CERCLA was "not intended to create liability for the dispersal of debris and wreckage from a catastrophe that was indistinguishable from military attack in purpose, scale, means, and effect"

Dicta in the Second Circuit's ruling may have implications for environmental claims relating to climate change? With all of the pollution caused by storm events, which seems to be increasing year by year, will this decision provide a defense to a chemical manufacturer, whose product was released into a waterway because of a hurricane?   In its ruling, the court analogized 9/11, an act of war, to a tornado, an act of God. 

CERCLA provides three defenses to strict liability for releases of hazardous substances. The potentially responsible party (PRP) must prove that the release was "caused solely" by (1) an act of God, (2) an act of war, or (3) an act of a third party.

In exonerating the 9/11 defendants on the basis of the "act or war" defense, the court determined that the attacks were the "sole cause" of the alleged release, comparing the situation to the application of CERCLA's "act of God" affirmative defense to a tornado.  In her article in the Bloomberg BNA Toxics Law Reporter on May 8, 2014 (29 TXLR 407) titled "Superfund Suit Against WTC Parties Fails; Could Impact Claims Related to Climate Change", Perry Cooper examines language in the Second Circuit's decision that may be potentially useful in establishing an "act of God" defense in climate change litigation. 

"It would be absurd to impose CERCLA liability on the owners of property that is demolished and dispersed by a tornado", the court said.  "A tornado, which scatters dust and all else, is the 'sole cause' of the environmental damage left in its wake notwithstanding that the owners of flying buildings did not abate asbestos, or that farmers may have added chemicals to the soil that was picked up and scattered." 

Hopefully,  no CERCLA trial court will ever be asked to evaluate whether, in the wake of  a terrorist attack that results in the  release of hazardous substances, a defendant can avail itself of the "act of war" defense. However, it is likely that Cedar & Washington Assocs LLC will be cited for the proposition that releases occasioned by  severe unforeseeable storm events should be considered acts of God. 

 

 

U.S. Bankruptcy Court Exposes Plaintiff Scheme To Suppress Asbestos Exposure Evidence

On January 10, 2014, the Hon. George R. Hodges, United States Bankruptcy Court for the Western District of North Carolina, handed down a decision that promises to be a “game changer” for asbestos manufacturers facing potentially crushing mesothelioma death claims. Top Bloomberg BNA Toxics Law reporter, Perry Cooper, discussed the decision and its potential ramifications in her recent article titled, “Sides Fiercely Divided Over Impact of Garlock Asbestos Bankruptcy Court Order” (2/26/14).

The issue before the Bankruptcy Court was how to determine a reasonable and reliable estimate of Garlock Sealing Technologies, LLC’s (“Garlock”) liability for present and future mesothelioma claims. The court rejected the asbestos claimants’ $1.3 billion liability estimate in favor of Garlock’s $125 million estimate, an order of magnitude less.  Why did it do so?

The court initially determined that Garlock’s products resulted in a relatively low exposure to asbestos to only a limited population and that its legal responsibility for causing mesothelioma was relatively de minimis. During the early phase of the asbestos litigation in the 1980’s – when Garlock was generally named in complaints naming 20-50 more defendants – Garlock was very successful in settling its cases.


However, things changed for the worse by the early 2000’s, by which time large thermal insulation defendants had filed for bankruptcy and were no longer participants in the tort system. As the focus of plaintiffs’ attention turned to Garlock, as one of the remaining solvent defendants, evidence of plaintiffs’ exposure to other asbestos products often disappeared. As a result, plaintiffs’ law firms used their control over the evidence to drive up the settlements demanded of Garlock.

The crux of the court’s determination was that plaintiffs routinely denied exposure to other [bankrupt] companies’ asbestos products in pre-trial discovery and at trial, while often shortly thereafter filing multiple claims under oath with asbestos bankruptcy trusts. The “double-dipping” described by Judge Hodges where, for example, a plaintiff denies any exposure to insulation products, but after the case is settled, files 23 Trust claims, appears to be a widespread practice.

This conduct violates court rules and should be severely sanctioned if and when it comes to light. This decision shines a bright light on unethical practices in the plaintiff asbestos bar that may be a game changer particularly for manufacturers whose legal responsibility for causing mesothelioma, like Garlock, is relatively de minimis. It is the small players who are being pummeled by the lack of disclosure provided in these cases who should be seeking relief.

Garlock was able to demonstrate that in cases where it was able to obtain evidence of filed Trust claims and use them at trial, it generally had a successful trial result. In contrast, the thermal insulation defendants’ exodus from the tort system and the subsequent “disappearance” of evidence of exposure to their products, necessitated a sea change in Garlock’s negotiating and trial strategy.

Garlock demonstrated that the availability of comprehensive asbestos exposure information was often the difference between winning and losing at trial. If plaintiffs’ suppression of exposure evidence occurred in litigation against other defendants besides Garlock, it has likely resulted in higher asbestos settlements and judgments by as much as several hundred millions of dollars. At the same time, the contingency fees harvested by plaintiff lawyers in the asbestos litigation are staggering. But we should not assume that every plaintiff law firm improperly withholds exposure evidence. Cases should be examined on a case-by-case basis.

However, asbestos manufacturers are likely to bring increasing pressure on asbestos courts to compel plaintiffs to produce comprehensive evidence of asbestos exposure. The cookie-cutter management of large asbestos dockets often sweeps the legitimate concerns of asbestos defendants, particularly the smaller players, under the rug.

Trial courts should be encouraged to come up with creative means of ensuring judicial fairness. Depending upon the jurisdiction, this may involve having the trial court retain jurisdiction to reduce a verdict or settlement to account for post-verdict claims brought against other entities, who were not identified in the trial court. Alternatively, plaintiffs should be required to file Trust claims forms before trial or be judicially estopped from doing so after settlement.

RICO claims have been successfully brought against plaintiff law firms for fraud in the past. Judge Hodges’ decision, and the underlying evidence upon which it is based, provides Garlock with strong ammunition to pursue RICO claims. Additionally, the law firms identified by Judge Hodges may be subject to increasing scrutiny by the asbestos courts in the jurisdictions where they practice. Like the asbestos defendants of yesteryear, these well-heeled plaintiff law firms make for deep-pocketed defendants.
 

Contradictory Testimony No Basis for Denial Of Summary Judgment

All too often, a defendant in a toxic tort case loses a motion for summary judgment because the court determines that imprecise witness testimony creates a triable issue of fact that warrants denial of the motion. Indeed, it is the rule in California that the task of deciphering the meaning of “ambiguous” witness testimony is a role reserved for the jury. Reid v. Google, Inc. (2010) 50 Cal.4th 512, 541, 113 Cal.Rptr. 3d 327, 235 P.3d.988

Thus, quoting from this oft-cited case, plaintiffs routinely argue that “the task of disambiguating ambiguous utterances is for trial, not for summary judgment.” Other California holdings suggest that an inconsistency in witness testimony does not require that the testimony be disregarded in its entirety; rather, it is for the trier of fact to determine what weight the testimony should be given. Clemmer v. Hartford Insurance Co. (1978) 22 Cal.3d 865.

On May 4, 2012, the Bloomberg BNA Toxic Law Reporter reported on the recent  decision in Davis v. Foster Wheeler Energy Corp., Cal. Ct. App., No. B226089, 4/26/12, where the California Court of Appeal for the Second Appellate District drew a sharp distinction between testimony that was “ambiguous” and testimony that was “internally contradictory.”  In affirming summary judgment, the court found that no triable issue of fact was established where the witness testimony was contradictory. Here are the pertinent facts.

Ronald Davis worked at a chemical plant in Torrance, California in the 1960’s. He later developed mesothelioma, and died in 2009. Among others, the plaintiff sued Foster Wheeler, alleging negligence, strict liability, breach of warranty, and loss of consortium. Foster Wheeler moved for summary judgment, arguing that it did not manufacture, sell, or distribute any asbestos-containing product, and that the decedent was not exposed to asbestos dust by any Foster Wheeler product. The trial court granted summary judgment and plaintiffs appealed.

The plaintiffs argued that there was a triable issue concerning whether Davis was exposed to asbestos dust when Foster Wheeler employees, such a decedent, stripped old asbestos-containing insulation from the outside of boilers during maintenance activity. Key to the plaintiffs’ appeal was the deposition of Claude Chabot, a witness who initially claimed that he observed a maintenance worker stripping insulation wearing a hat with “FW” on the brim. However, in a later deposition, Mr. Chabot testified that he had no information whether any Foster Wheeler personnel removed or installed insulation on the boilers at the plant.

Under these circumstances, the trial court decided that “no reasonable jury considering this opposing testimony would conclude that the [Foster Wheeler] workers are the workers who removed the asbestos insulation around the Foster Wheeler boiler.” The appeals court agreed that Mr. Chabot’s internally contradictory testimony did not establish the existence of a triable issue of fact.

I have not examined whether other jurisdictions draw a similar distinction between “ambiguous” and “contradictory” or “internally inconsistent” testimony, but if they do not, perhaps they should. In many toxic tort cases, defense counsel may be confronted with potentially adverse testimony from a witness who is testifying to recollections that may be decades old. (Did the witness see that FW hat at the plant or at a UCLA football game?)

One school of thought is to leave adverse testimony alone. Pursuant to this view, taking an expanded deposition of plaintiff’s witness would only make the “record” worse. The holding in Davis suggests that this view may be shortsighted. The adverse witness who provides an affidavit to plaintiff’s counsel may be doing so out of sympathy for a co-worker who has died or suffers from a serious illness. A witness’s recollection of events is often different when the witness is deposed, possibly on videotape, in a formal deposition setting. It is possible that the witness, who provided the unhelpful affidavit, may be willing to admit in deposition that his recollection of long past events may be faulty or possibly inaccurate.

Eliciting contradictory testimony from a witness may not necessarily mean that the witness is dishonest or hostile. Rather, it reflects the tendency in all of us to want to be helpful. Foster Wheeler’s counsel skillfully developed inconsistencies in the witness’s testimony and thereby obtained dismissal from the case. There is no reason why “inconsistent” or “internally contradictory” testimony from witnesses, perhaps originally adverse, should not be disregarded by trial courts in other jurisdictions besides California.
 

No Liability for Others' Asbestos Products

The Bloomberg BNA Toxics Law Reporter reported this morning concerning an important new decision from the Supreme Court of California in O'Neil v. Crane Co., Cal., No. S177401, 1/12/12
In summary, California's high court reaffirmed the principle that a product manufacturer may not be held strictly liable or negligent for harm caused by another maker's product, except where the defendant has some direct responsibility for the harm.  In so holding, California refused to open the floodgates in the asbestos litigation to permit suits against manufacturers that never manufacturer or marketed asbestos-containing products.

Joining the majority of other jurisdictions that have considered the issue, California's highest court held that California law did not impose liability on manufacturers of shipboard valves and pumps used in conjunction with asbestos-containing parts made by others.  In this case, the high court reversed the California Court of Appeal, Second Appellate District, which ruled in favor of the family of Patrick O'Neil, a naval officer allegedly exposed to asbestos from 1965 to 1967. O'Neil died of mesothelioma, a disease caused by asbestos, at 62.                                                                                  
 “[A] product manufacturer generally may not be held strictly liable for harm caused by another manufacturer's product. The only exceptions to this rule arise when the defendant bears some direct responsibility for the harm,” Justice Carol A. Corrigan wrote for the court.

The court rejected the family's argument that Crane Co. and Warren Pumps LLC, which made valves and pumps used on the ship, should be held strictly liable because they foresaw that their products would be used with replacement asbestos parts. The rationale for the Court's holding is that  “[T]he foreseeability of harm, standing alone, is not a sufficient basis for imposing strict liability on the manufacturer of a nondefective product, or one whose arguably defective product does not actually cause harm.”   The Court left open the possibility for imposing liability for a non-manufacturer of asbestos in instances where it could be shown that “the defendant's own product contributed substantially to the harm” or “the defendant participated substantially in creating a harmful combined use of the products.”  However, that was clearly not the case here.

As to the plaintiff's negligence claims, the Court held that the defendants pump and valve companies owed no duty of care in the circumstances, based on “strong policy considerations.”
The companies' connection to O'Neil's injury was remote because they did not manufacture the asbestos-containing products; imposing a duty would be unlikely to prevent future harm; the Navy made its own purchasing choices and specifications; and consumers could potentially be harmed by too many product warnings, the court reasoned.

Increasingly, the plaintiff bar is seeking to impose strict product liabililty on manufacturers whose products did not cause the alleged harm.  This trend in asbestos cases is not dissimiliar from those pharmaceutical product  liability cases in which the plaintiffs seek to hold a brand name drug manufacturer liable, whose product was never taken by the injured party, for injuries allegedly caused by a generic manufacturer's product.  These lawsuits are offensive to longstanding product liability case law and policy and should be rejected by the courts.