Reagan agrees with defense in asbestos case removal; Federal officer statute upheld

Heather Isringhausen Gvillo Apr. 15, 2014, 2:24pm

U.S. District Judge Michael Reagan has denied remand of an asbestos lawsuit to Madison County finding in favor of defendants’ “federal officer” removal statute argument

Reagan’s April 9 ruling addresses a number of issues in a lung cancer case brought by the Napoli firm on behalf of plaintiffs Linda and William Hasenberg, Jr.

Attorneys Eric Jackstadt, Steven Aroesty and Stephanie Gold represent the Hasenbergs.

The suit filed last year named 35 defendants and alleged that William Hasenberg of Illinois was exposed to asbestos through his work with the U.S. Navy from 1968 to 1972, in a series of jobs ranging from a crane rental business to auto body repair from 1974 to 1988 and on personal automotive repairs from 1973 to 2013.

Reagan stated concerns over whether a state court might reflect “local prejudice” or hostility against unpopular federal laws or federal officials in addressing Crane Co.’s federal officer argument.

The basic purpose of the federal officer removal statute is to “protect the federal government from the interference with its operations which would ensue if a state were able to try federal officers and agents for alleged offenses committed while acting within the scope of their authority,” Reagan wrote.

Reagan also wrote that the “mere fact” that a private firm must comply with such detailed federal regulations alone is not enough to support federal officer removal.

But when an “intensely-regulated private contractor” helps produce a needed item for the federal government, the provided assistance to the federal officers “’goes beyond simple compliance with the law and helps [the federal] officers fulfill other basic governmental tasks,’” Reagan wrote.

Crane was acting under the direction of the U.S. Navy by designing, manufacturing, supplying or selling its products to the Navy according to precise Navy standards, the company argued.

Reagan stated the court was unpersuaded by the plaintiff’s argument that Crane failed to prove that a causal connection existed between the conduct complained of and the assertion of official authority.

He wrote that federal officer removal is proper when the plaintiffs’ complaint includes both use-of-asbestos and failure-to-warn claims. Reagan agreed that Crane met requirements of the statute.

He also wrote that Crane’s government contractor defense protects government contractors from state tort liability for products manufactured for the U.S. Armed Forces under certain circumstances.

Because Crane’s evidence proving the navy provided precise specifications despite knowledge of asbestos hazards and Crane’s products followed the guidelines, Crane has a “colorable defense” according to federal law, Reagan states.

Dismissal Motions

After ruling in favor of Crane regarding federal officer removal, Reagan then focused on several pending dismissal motions of ofther defendants.

Reagan granted the Hasenbergs’ motion for voluntary dismissal of Counts IV and V against John Crane, Inc. but did not dispose of all claims against John Crane.

Because the plaintiffs previously filed several other motions for voluntary dismissal against various defendants, which has “muddied the record even further,” Reagan ordered the Hasenbergs to file an amended complaint identifying every defendant in each count by May 9.

The counts include:

-          Negligence as to manufacturers/sSuppliers

-          Willful and wanton as to manufacturers/suppliers

-          Conspiracy (against defendants Metropolitan Life Insurance, Honeywell, International, and Pneumo Abex LLC)

-          Negligent spoliation of evidence as to manufacturers/suppliers

-          Willful and wanton spoliation as to manufacturers/suppliers

-          Loss of consortium

“This case originated in state court, where it is common to label counts with such titles as ‘Willful and Wanton as to Manufacturers/Suppliers of Asbestos Products,” Reagan wrote.

“Although not technically improper, this is quite unhelpful in a case with three dozen defendants, for the record is unclear as to precisely which defendants, which counts are directed against, unless one knows who is a manufacturer, who is a supplier and who is both.”

Motion to Dismiss for Lack of Personal Jurisdiction

On Jan. 20, defendant Whittaker, Clark & Daniels, Inc. also filed a motion to dismiss but based its arguments on the plaintiffs’ alleged lack of personal jurisdiction.

Reagan wrote that an evidentiary hearing was not held on the issue at the time, leaving the court to question whether the claimants have established personal jurisdiction according to evidence.

Due to the several motions to dismiss and the ordered amended complaint, Reagan rendered WCD’s motion moot but continued to address the legal standards governing personal jurisdiction in federal court for future reference.

When applying personal jurisdiction, Reagan ruled that the court should apply federal pleading standards rather than Illinois pleading standards recognizing that the parties keep citing Illinois cases for concept rather than federal cases.

Reagan wrote that in federal court, “the judicial approach to considering a question of personal jurisdiction is well-established. ‘A complaint need not include facts alleging personal jurisdiction…’ However, once the defendant moves to dismiss the complaint under Rule 12 for lack of personal jurisdiction, the plaintiff bears the burden of demonstrating the existence of jurisdiction.”

Reagan mooted WCD’s motion to dismiss because the court anticipates that if the plaintiffs name WCD as a defendant in their amended complaint, the company will file a fresh motion to dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction.

While Reagan wrote that it is still premature to address whether personal jurisdiction regarding a possible motion from WCD is general and could be tried in other states or if it is specific and would certainly be tried in Illinois, he stated that either way the ultimate constitutional query is whether the defendant had certain minimum contacts in order to avoid offending “’traditional notions of fair play and substantial justice.’”

More News