Asbestos defendants appeal jurisdiction ruling in Madison County lung cancer cases

By Heather Isringhausen Gvillo | Jul 31, 2014

EDWARDSVILLE, Ill. (Legal Newsline) – Defendants in three separate Madison County, Ill., asbestos cases alleging lung cancer have appealed orders denying their forum non conveniens motions to dismiss, which a judge said failed to sufficiently argue that Illinois is inconvenient for all parties involved in the cases.

Associate Judge Stephen Stobbs of the Madison County Circuit Court denied the dismissal requests on May 23 in three separate asbestos personal injury lawsuits.

The defendants include Union Carbide Corporation, CBS Corporation, Honeywell International, Inc., Crane Co., Georgia Pacific, LLC, Ingersoll-Rand Company, Trane U.S., Inc., General Electric Company, National Automotive Parts Association, Carlisle Brake & Friction, Inc., 84 Lumber Company and York International Corporation.

They filed their appeals in the Appellate Court of Illinois, Fifth Judicial District.

Stobbs explained that each defendant failed to show that the plaintiffs could have filed their claims against all defendants in another state, and specifically failed to state which court in the alternate states would be a more appropriate jurisdiction for the cases.

“[N]ot only must a moving party demonstrate that a plaintiff’s initial forum is inconvenient to the moving party, but they also must demonstrate that another forum is more convenient to all parties involved,” Stobbs wrote.

The defendants argue Stobbs’ orders denying the forum non conveniens motions is a “clear abuse of discretion” because the case has no relevant connection to Illinois and renders the forum non conveniens doctrine a “dead letter” in cases involving numerous defendants, which applies to nearly every asbestos case filed in Madison County.

The defendants says Stobbs’ order relies primarily on the convenience factor of the forum non conveniens statute.

They add that while some courts use “convenience” interchangeably with “conveniens,” the word actually means “appropriate” in Latin. Therefore, convenience is just one of the many factors forum non conveniens motions should be decided upon.

“As all factors need to be considered, convenience does not control the doctrine’s application; connections do; connections that make it the most appropriate jurisdiction,” the appeals state. “So while plaintiffs want to focus on convenience, the Movants believe the courts have always required connections with the forum so that the action will be in the most appropriate jurisdiction.”

Forum non conveniens motions include both private and public interest factors.

Private factors, they say, include convenience of the parties, ease of access to sources and evidence, availability of subpoenaing unwilling witnesses and all other “practical considerations that make a trial easy, expeditious and inexpensive.”

Public interest factors, they say, include the administrative difficulties resulting from litigation in congested jurisdictions, unfair jury duty upon residents of a community with no connection to the litigation and the interest in having local controversies decided locally.

“Indeed, litigating in Illinois would be the antithesis of ‘easy, expeditious and inexpensive’ and would gravely impair movants’ ability to defend the case,” the defendants argue.

In regards to private interest factors, the defendants argue that neither Illinois courts nor movants are able to compel witnesses of another state – including any coworker, work site or medical treatment witness – to attend trial as they are beyond the court’s subpoena power.

“Thus, the hardship to the movants in both investigating the facts of this case and in presenting their defenses would be considerable,” the appeals state.

Also, it would be unnecessarily costly to bring any willing witnesses to Madison County to testify, they say.

The defendants further allege the irrationality of requiring a jury composed of Madison County residents to travel to other states to view the premises of the alleged exposures sites if such evidence was needed.

“Because the plaintiffs asserted claims against several defendants based on myriad asbestos-containing products at numerous work sites over decades, site specific investigations are necessary,” the defendants argue.

Additionally, the movants must investigate the claimants’ work sites and residences for possible alternatives to the cause of their lung cancer, they say.

“There is substantial reason to believe that [their] lung cancer was not caused by asbestos, but rather was caused by exposure to cigarette smoke,” they wrote.

Decedent Jack Warden smoked up to three packs per day from 1958 until 2011, when he was diagnosed with lung cancer.

Warden filed his lawsuit in July 2012, alleging he was exposed to asbestos-containing products, causing him to develop lung cancer. Warden died from his illness in March 2013.

Seven of the 25 remaining defendants filed motions to dismiss, arguing Utah was the proper location for litigation.

Decedent Wilma Munsey-Hunt’s husband smoked three or more packs of cigarettes per day until 2000. As a result, Munsey-Hunt was exposed to second-hand smoke.

Munsey-Hunt filed her lawsuit in January 2013, alleging she was exposed to the defendants’ asbestos-containing products through her husband, causing her to develop lung cancer. She died from her injuries in May 2013.

Of the 40 remaining defendants in the case, 11 of them filed motions to dismiss, alleging a court in Tennessee would be the more proper venue.

Both cases were set for trial on Dec. 1, 2014, but were re-set for the April 6, 2015, trial docket.

Plaintiff Robert Glenn Murphy smoked one or more packs of Marlboro cigarettes per day from 1961 to 1978

Murphy served in the U.S. Navy from 1961 to 1965 in various locations, including Illinois, California and Hawaii.

While in the Navy, Murphy served onboard the USS Epperson DD 719 and the USS John S. McCain DLS as a boiler man 3rd class, where he claims he was exposed to asbestos through his duties.

After leaving the Navy, Murphy lived in Alaska where he worked as an insurance adjustor, a postal worker, a firefighter and a school bus driver. However, he contends that all asbestos exposures occurred while serving in the Navy.

Seven of the 24 remaining defendants moved for dismissal, alleging Alaska is the proper location for litigation.

Those with knowledge of the claimants’ smoking habits and exposures are concentrated in their respective states, the defendants say.

As for the public interest factors, the defendants say trying the case in Madison County would be an “injustice” to appropriate Madison County litigants who would have to wait longer before earning a spot on a trial docket.

The defendants took the county’s congested asbestos docket, which ranks at the top of state court asbestos dockets, into consideration when arguing the appropriateness of this jurisdiction.

The local asbestos docket rose significantly from 325 new asbestos filings in 2006 to 1,678 new filings in 2013, making the county the “epicenter” of asbestos litigation, according to the American Tort Reform Association.

The defendants also claim forum shopping has become so prevalent in Madison County that roughly 10 percent of the total new asbestos filings actually come from Illinois residents, and only three new filings of the 656 new asbestos lawsuits so far in 2014 have come from Madison County residents.

The defendants argue the Napoli, Bern, Ripka & Shkolnik firm, which represents these plaintiffs, is a key player in forum shopping.

Since opening its local office in 2012, the New York-based Napoli firm’s filing numbers spiked from 343 in 2012 to 548 in 2013, making it the top asbestos filer in the county.

More specifically, the Napoli firm dominates the docket’s lung cancer filings. More than 90 percent of the firm’s 2013 flings were lung cancer claims.

The defendants are concerned with Napoli’s lung cancer cases because lung cancer is most often caused by smoking and other non-asbestos related causes, they say.

The defendants argue that if all lung cancer patients were to file asbestos lawsuits, the mass filings would threaten to “overwhelm the docket, swamp the court and crowd out court resources that would otherwise be available to actual Madison County residents.”

“The consequences of mass lung cancer filings on asbestos dockets would be staggering …” the appeals state. “Madison County’s asbestos docket is not prepared or equipped to handle a new wave of litigation that could come from the filing of large numbers of lung cancer cases.”

A jurisdiction for all parties

Stobbs also stated in his orders that because only a select number of the remaining defendants in each case moved for dismissal based on forum non conveniens, the court would still have to try the case with respect to the remaining defendants even if the motions were granted.

“This result defeats the stated purpose of the forum non conveniens rule, which is to ‘unburden’ the court with litigation that could be more conveniently tried in some other forum,” he wrote.

“Additionally, the defendants’ suggestion that the court dismiss the entire case against all parties, even if they have not joined in the motion to dismiss, is not ‘practical,’ because those defendants who have not filed or joined in the motion cannot be compelled to accept service, waive any available statute of limitations defense or consent to jurisdiction and venue in the proposed alternate forum. This result would not better serve the ends of justice,” he added.

In addition, while it is not necessary for all defendants to join in the motion, those requesting dismissal must present sufficient evidence proving another forum is convenient to all parties, the order explains.

The defendants argue the circuit court erred in its argument that a specific court appropriate for all parties must be provided.

The movants explain that it cannot be true that requests for dismissal under the forum non conveniens doctrine, the motions must be denied if some of the defendants refrain from joining.

“If that is the rule, then forum non conveniens motions will virtually never be granted in cases – including nearly every asbestos case filed in this state – in which the plaintiff chooses to sue many defendants,” the appeals state.

The defendants believe that, at the very least, the circuit court should have dismissed them from their respective cases according to Supreme Court Rule 187 on forum non conveniens cases.

However, Stobbs denied the motions, stating that if he dismissed the movants, the court would still have to try the case with the remaining defendants, which “defeats the stated purpose of the forum non conveniens Rule, which is to unburden’ the court with litigation that could be more conveniently tried in some other form.’’”

They added that they only way to read Rule 187 as the circuit court did in these cases, “is to assume the Supreme Court never contemplated a forum motion in a multi-defendant case.”

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

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