Heather Isringhausen Gvillo Dec. 1, 2014, 10:49am

PHILADELPHIA (Legal Newsline) – The asbestos multidistrict litigation court recently suggested remanding hundreds of asbestos cases back to the district court for resolution of all matters, including punitive damages for the first time.

Judge Eduardo Robreno filed the suggestion of remand on Nov. 24 in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, sending roughly 200 maritime asbestos cases back to the Northern District of Ohio.

These cases stand out from the numerous other cases previously remanded form the asbestos MDL court because this is the first time punitive damages have been remanded along with the asbestos action.

In a July 9 opinion, Robreno explained that when a case is remanded, the court typically severs any claims for punitive or exemplary damages and retains jurisdiction over these claims in the MDL court.

Citing the Collins decision, Robreno stated that “it is responsible public policy to give priority to compensatory claims over exemplary punitive damage windfalls; this prudent conservation damage claims on remand.”

Robreno held that punitive damages were proper in maritime asbestos cases in his July 9 opinion, concluding that punitive damages are permitted as a matter of law to seamen bringing claims of unseaworthiness in asbestos cases. However, the awards may be subject to limitations under the specific circumstances of the individual case.

He based his decision on the Jones Act and the Death on the High Seas Act, which were passed by Congress in 1920 and expanded the protections available to seamen and their families.

The Jones Act allowed seamen to bring negligence claims against their employers, which was not permitted prior to the legislation’s enactment. It also allowed a seaman’s personal representative to file claims against the employer if the seaman died as a result of his injuries.

The Death on the High Seas Act provided similar relief for relatives of seamen who died as a result of his injuries by allowing wrongful death and negligence claims.

However, Robreno clarified that punitive damages awards are not appropriate in wrongful death and survival actions, stressing the importance of the chronology of the development of maritime law. Therefore, punitive damages are not available to wrongful death and survival actions that do not predate the Jones Act.

Furthermore, the Supreme Court held that a remedy for a seaman’s injury ends with his death unless a statute exists granting such remedies for his wife or kin.

“Therefore,” Robreno wrote, “however unfair or anomalous, the common law discrepancy in available remedies persists in the area of punitive damages.”

Robreno rationalized punitive damages awards by arguing that while the relief won’t necessarily punish or deter asbestos defendants from acting in “egregious” conduct because asbestos is strictly regulated today, it could at least deter future reckless conduct regarding a different risky product.

Citing the Sixth Circuit, he explained that “‘whether a defendant’s particular course of conduct has ceased is irrelevant to the accomplishment’ of the broader general deterrence function of punitive damages awards.”

The asbestos MDL court is split into two separate dockets: the land-based docket and the maritime docket, or MARDOC.

There are currently approximately 140 active land-based cases pending in the MDL court after more than 600 land-based cases have been remanded to 59 transferor districts.  

As for the maritime docket, Robreno explained in his July 9 opinion that prior to this order, he believes no cases had been remanded to the transferor court since 2008, but he expects all remaining cases to be closed or remanded in the “near future.”

Furthermore, no claims for punitive damages have been severed or retained by the court form the MARDOC docket. As a result, punitive damages claims have proceeded along two separate tracks according to each docket.

In the alternative to remand, Robreno gave each party in the cases seven days to consent to a trial date in the MDL court, therefore vacating the suggestion to remand.

Robreno also ordered all viable, non-bankrupt, defendants who are not identified as a pending defendant in each case dismissed from the respective case.

Upon remand to the district court, Robreno stated that for the most part, the cases are already prepared for trial once included on the transferor court’s docket.

Asbestos plaintiffs attorneys from the Motley Rice LLC law firm represent the plaintiffs in these cases with co-counsel from The Jaques Admiralty Law Firm, P.C.

From Legal Newsline: Reach Heather Isringhausen Gvillo at asbestos@legalnewsline.com

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