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Delaware Supreme Court declines jurisdiction over Argentine nationals' asbestos cases

By John O'Brien | Feb 21, 2014

DOVER, Del. (Legal Newsline) - The Delaware Supreme Court has affirmed the dismissal of an Argentine national's asbestos lawsuit against DuPont.

The court released its decision Thursday in Maria Elena Martinez's lawsuit, which alleged her late husband Santos Roque Rocha was exposed to asbestos while working in textile plants located in Argentina and owned by a subsidiary of DuPont.

The case is one of 32 filed by Argentine nationals against DuPont, which is headquartered in Delaware. The Supreme Court ruled it did not have jurisdiction or Martinez's case or the other 31.

"If a court determines that it would be extraordinarily expensive and cumbersome for a defendant to litigate a case in Delaware, that may constitute not only serious hardship to the defendant, but also concomitant, serious and practical problems that would make it... not 'easy, expeditious and inexpensive' for the Delaware court to retain jurisdiction," Justice Randy Holland wrote for the majority.

"(I)t was not an abuse of discretion for the Superior Court to conclude... that this factor favored DuPont because it would be extraordinarily expensive, cumbersome and inconsistent with the efficient administration of justice for DuPont to litigate these 32 related matters in Delaware."

The Superior Court dismissed the lawsuit on the basis of forum non conveniens, holding Delaware was not the appropriate jurisdiction for it.

When there is no issue of prior pendency of the same action in another jurisdiction, Delaware courts hold the jurisdiction issue to factors established in a 1964 case involving Cryo-Maid.

The six factors included in that analysis are:

-The relative ease of access to proof;

-The availability of compulsory process for witnesses;

-The possibility of the view of the premises;

-Whether the controversy is dependent upon the application of Delaware law which the courts of this State more properly should decide than those of another jurisdiction;

-The pendency or nonpendency of a similar action or actions in another jurisdiction; and

-All other practical problems that would make the trial of the case easy, expeditious and inexpensive.

DuPont proved that it would face an "overwhelming hardship" if the case continued in Delaware, Holland wrote.

"As the record reflects, the Superior Court understood and conducted a detailed analysis of each of the Cryo-Maid factors, focusing on the multiple, practical problems and costs that litigating these Argentine occupational injury cases in Delaware would impose on DuPont and on the courts of Delaware," Holland wrote.

"More specifically, the Superior Court acted fully within its discretion under our precedent by giving weight to the novelty and importance of the legal issues presented in this case - especially since the governing law is set forth in Spanish, not English."

The Superior Court ruled that the issues presented would be appropriately determined by the courts of the only sovereign whose law is at stake - Argentina.

Holland also wrote the policy issue involved in the case could influence the willingness of corporations to conduct operations in Argentina.

"For that reason, Argentina's interest in having its law established by courts having definitive interpretative authority was properly recognized by the trial court as important," Holland wrote.

"Of related significance, the Superior Court properly exercised its discretion by recognizing that the plaintiff was not a resident of Delaware and that the injury her late husband allegedly suffered occurred in Argentina, not Delaware."

Justice Carolyn Berger dissented. She called the majority opinion "an unsettling new approach to this Court's decision-making."

"The majority never discusses or decides whether the trial court correctly analyzed Martinez's claims, because if it did, the majority might not be able to get to its real point - that Delaware corporate law should be decided in Delaware and that other jurisdictions should 'stay in their lane,'" Berger wrote.

"By making novel or important issues of foreign law a significant factor in favor of dismissing a Delaware action, the majority id demonstrating its willingness to stay in its own lane. Unfortunately, this new approach means that a plaintiff's choice of forum is considerably less secure."

From Legal Newsline: Reach editor John O'Brien at jobrienwv@gmail.com.

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