771 F.Supp. 415 (Jud.Pan.Mult.Lit. 1991), MDL 875, In re Asbestos Products Liability Litigation (No. VI)

Docket Nº:MDL 875
Citation:771 F.Supp. 415
Party Name:In re Asbestos Products Liability Litigation (No. VI)
Case Date:July 29, 1991
Court:United States Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation

Page 415

771 F.Supp. 415 (Jud.Pan.Mult.Lit. 1991)

In re ASBESTOS PRODUCTS LIABILITY LITIGATION (NO. VI).

MDL No. 875.

Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation.

July 29, 1991

Page 416

Before JOHN F. NANGLE, Chairman, S. HUGH DILLIN, [*] MILTON POLLACK,* LOUIS H. POLLAK, HALBERT O. WOODWARD, ROBERT R. MERHIGE, Jr., and WILLIAM B. ENRIGHT, Judges of the Panel.

OPINION AND ORDER

Judge NANGLE, Chairman, Delivered the Opinion of the Panel, in Which Judges POLLAK, WOODWARD, MERHIGE and ENRIGHT joined.

On January 17, 1991, the Panel issued an order to show cause why all pending federal district court actions not then in trial involving allegations of personal injury or wrongful death caused by asbestos should not be centralized in a single forum under 28 U.S.C. § 1407. Because of the difficulty in serving this order on the enormous number of parties in this docket, the Panel relied on the clerks of all district courts to serve the parties to actions in their respective districts. 1 As a result, the parties to the 26,639 actions pending in 87 federal districts and listed on the following Schedule A are subject to the Panel's order. 2 [Editor's Note: All but the Summary of Schedule A has been omitted from publication by the Court.] More than 180 pleadings have been filed in response to the Panel's order, and a four hour hearing on the question of transfer was held on May 30, 1991 in New York City, at which time 37 counsel presented oral argument. In many instances the attorneys filing these pleadings or participating in oral argument were representing the views of large groups of parties.

Supporting transfer are plaintiffs in approximately 17,000 actions (including a core group of more than 14,000 plaintiffs represented by over 50 law firms) and 30 defendants (24 of which are named in more than 20,000 actions). Opposing transfer are plaintiffs in at least 5,200 actions and 454 defendants. The positions of those parties that have expressed a preference with respect

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to transferee district are varied. Many parties suggest centralization in what amounts to their home forum. The Eastern District of Pennsylvania is the district either expressly favored or not objected to in the greatest number of pleadings. The Eastern District of Texas, which is the choice of the aforementioned core group of 14,000 plaintiffs, is also the district that has generated the most opposition from defendants. Other suggested districts that go beyond the home forum approach are the District of the District of Columbia, the Eastern District of Louisiana, the Northern District of Ohio, and the Eastern District of New York. Some parties' forum recommendations are expressed in the form of a suggested individual transferee judge or transferee judge structure.

On the basis of the papers filed and the hearing held, the Panel finds that the actions in this litigation involve common questions of fact relating to injuries or wrongful death allegedly caused by exposure to asbestos or asbestos containing products, and that centralization under § 1407 in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania will best serve the convenience of the parties and witnesses and promote the just and efficient conduct of this litigation.

DISCUSSION

Any discussion of § 1407 transfer in this docket must begin with the recognition that the question does not arise in a vacuum. Indeed, the impetus for the Panel's order to show cause was a November 21, 1990 letter signed by eight federal district judges responsible for many asbestos actions in their respective districts. 3 These judges, citing the serious problem that asbestos personal injury litigation continues to be for the federal judiciary, requested that the Panel act on its own initiative to address the question of § 1407 transfer. Furthermore, as the title of this docket suggests, this is the sixth time that the Panel has considered transfer of asbestos litigation. On the five previous occasions (1977, 1980, 1985, 1986 and 1987) that the Panel considered the question, it denied transfer in each instance. 4

The Panel's constancy is not as dramatic as a mere recitation of the denials might suggest, however. The 1986 and 1987 dockets considered by the Panel involved only five and two actions, respectively. The 1985 Panel decision pertained not to personal injury/wrongful death asbestos actions but rather to property damage claims of school districts that incurred significant costs in removing asbestos products from school buildings. The denial in the 1980 Panel docket was based almost exclusively on the movants' failure to offer any distinctions that would warrant a disposition different from the Panel's first asbestos decision in 1977.

It is only in the 1977 decision, pertaining to 103 actions in nineteen districts, that the Panel offered any detailed analysis of its asbestos litigation reasoning with respect to asbestos personal injury/wrongful death actions. In that decision, the Panel first listed the primary arguments of the responding parties that unanimously opposed transfer: advanced stage of proceedings in many of the actions; use of voluntary coordinating arrangements in several districts; lack of commonality among defendants and plaintiffs; circumstances of exposure predominantly unique to each action; individual questions of causation in each action; predominantly individual questions of the liability of each defendant in each action;

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local issues predominating in the discovery process; absence of possibility of inconsistent or overlapping class certifications; and the readily discernible nature of the principal area common to all actions, the state of medical and scientific knowledge at a particular time regarding the health hazards posed by exposure to asbestos.

In denying transfer in the 1977 decision, the Panel recognized the existence of some common questions of fact among the actions. For in that docket, as in the matter currently before the Panel, all actions contained allegations of personal injury or death as a result of exposure to asbestos or asbestos containing products. The Panel nevertheless held that the other criteria for § 1407 transfer were not satisfied. In relevant part, the Panel stated:

Many factual questions unique to each action or to a group of actions already pending in a single district clearly predominate, and therefore transfer is unwarranted.... Furthermore, many of these actions already are well advanced. Some of the actions have been pending for up to four years, and trial dates or discovery cutoff dates have been set in several actions. Under these circumstances, transfer would not further the purposes of Section 1407.

In re Asbestos and Asbestos Insulation Material Products Liability Litigation, 431 F.Supp. 906, 910 (J.P.M.L.1977).

Many of the parties presently opposing transfer in this docket rely on the facts and reasoning of the Panel's 1977 transfer decision. They insist that the situation that warranted denial then not only still prevails but has been magnified by the greatly increased number of actions and parties in federal asbestos personal injury/wrongful death litigation--more than 30,000 pending federal actions now, as opposed to the 103 actions subject to the Panel's 1977 decision. In our view, it is precisely this change that now leads us to conclude that centralization of all federal asbestos personal injury/wrongful death actions, in the words of 28 U.S.C. § 1407(a), "will be for the convenience of parties and witnesses and will promote the just and efficient conduct of such actions." In short, we are persuaded that this litigation has reached a magnitude, not contemplated in the record before us in 1977, that threatens the administration of justice and that requires a new, streamlined approach.

The Panel is not the first to reach such a conclusion. Just this past March 1991, the Judicial Conference Ad Hoc Committee on Asbestos Litigation, whose members were appointed by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, stated as follows:

The committee has struggled with the problems confronting the courts of this nation arising from death and disease attributable to airborne asbestos industrial materials and products. The committee has concluded that the situation has reached critical dimensions and is getting worse. What has been a frustrating problem is becoming a disaster of major proportions to both the victims and the producers of asbestos products, which the courts are ill-equipped to meet effectively.

After extensive study, the Institute for Civil Justice of the Rand Corporation in 1985 observed, with respect to how the civil justice system handles asbestos claims, that--

The picture is not a pretty one. Decisions concerning thousands of deaths, millions of injuries, and billions of dollars are entangled in a litigation system whose strengths have increasingly been overshadowed by its weaknesses.

The ensuing five years have seen the picture worsen: increased filings, larger backlogs, higher costs, more bankruptcies and poorer prospects that judgments--if ever obtained--can be collected.

It is a tale of danger known in the 1930s, exposure inflicted upon millions of Americans in the 1940s and 1950s, injuries that began to take their toll in the 1960s, and a flood of lawsuits beginning in the 1970s. On the basis of past and current filing data, and because of a latency period that may last as long as 40 years for some asbestos related diseases,

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a continuing stream of claims can be expected. The final toll of asbestos related injuries is unknown. Predictions have been made of 200,000 asbestos disease deaths before the year 2000 and as many as 265,000 by the year 2015.

The most objectionable aspects of asbestos litigation can be briefly summarized: dockets in both federal and state courts continue to grow; long delays are routine; trials are too long; the same issues are...

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