WILMINGTON, Del. (Legal Newsline) – A Delaware judge has held that a plaintiff is allowed to bring two separate asbestos actions making the same allegations against different defendants years apart without violating the claim-splitting doctrine.
Judge Eric M. Davis delivered the Dec. 5 opinion in the Superior Court of the State of Delaware for New Castle County denying defendant Union Pacific Railroad Company’s motion for judgment on the pleadings.
Union Pacific argues that this action must be dismissed because it violates the claim-splitting doctrine by “impermissibly seeking recovery for the same asbestos exposure alleged and previously litigated against other defendants in a civil tort action filed in December 2011.”
However, plaintiff Kelli Griffin, as executor of the estate of Robert Griffin, argued that the claim-splitting doctrine is not applicable to this case. She argued that the claim-splitting doctrine is “intended to prevent a plaintiff from filing a cause of action arising out of the same facts against a defendant in different jurisdictions.”
In other words, because the defendants named in the 2014 action were not sued in the 2011 action, the claim-splitting doctrine does not apply.
The original lawsuit was filed by the decedent on Dec. 15, 2011, alleging he developed lung cancer as a result of occupational exposure to asbestos-containing products from 1969 to 2009. It asserted five separate causes of action against 24 defendants.
Following his death, Griffin was substituted in as the plaintiff. She litigated the action for two years and has settled with or dismissed all but one of the defendants. Union Pacific claims she is negotiating a settlement with the remaining defendant.
According to the original lawsuit, the decedent was occupationally exposed to asbestos as well as non-occupational exposures while working on his personal automobiles.
However, Union Pacific noted that while it was not named a defendant in the 2011 action, the lawsuit includes an allegation that the decedent was exposed to asbestos while employed by the railroad company from 1973 through 1999 as a brakeman/conductor.
Then on Jan. 31, 2014, Griffin filed this tort action against Union Pacific and Union Carbide Corporation, making the same allegations as the prior action.
As a result, Union Pacific argued that the claim-splitting doctrine should apply in this situation.
Davis explained that the rule against claim-splitting is “based on the belief that it is fairer to require a plaintiff to present in one action all of his theories of recover relating to a transaction, and all of the evidence relating to those theories, than to permit him to prosecute overlapping or repetitive actions in different courts or at different times.”
Davis noted that asbestos lawsuits typically are not single incident cases involving several defendants. Therefore, most of the claim-splitting doctrine cases involve a plaintiff filing multiple actions for a single incident.
Davis added that there are two basic principles at work in the doctrine:
-No person should be unnecessarily harassed with the multiplicity of suits; and
-Litigants should be prevented from getting “two bites at the apple.”
Addressing the first principle, he concluded that the 2011 action almost has no remaining defendants and will likely soon be closed.
Therefore, Union Pacific faces little, if any, risk of litigating multiple lawsuits for the same plaintiff.
As for the second principle, Davis held that Union Pacific was not a defendant in the previous lawsuit, meaning Griffin has not had the opportunity to litigate a case against the defendant yet.
“Therefore, the 2014 action is Ms. Griffin’s first ‘bite at the apple,’ so to speak,” he wrote.
Furthermore, Davis concluded that Delaware courts have held that the claim-splitting doctrine does not apply in cases where the defendants have failed to demonstrate that the two lawsuits would “substantially” overlap or cause prejudice, which Union Pacific has not shown here.
“Although Union Pacific argues that it was mentioned in the 2011 complaint, Union Pacific has not shown that the issues litigated in the 2011 action did or would ‘substantially overlap’ with those in the 2014 case. In fact, the parties provided very little information regarding the actual litigation actions taken in the 2011 action,” he wrote.
“Also, Union Pacific has shown no likelihood that it could be ‘hauled into court’ in the 2011 action and, therefore, be prejudiced by defending against multiple suits,” he added.
From Legal Newsline: Reach Heather Isringhausen Gvillo at email@example.com