Merchant Marine Asbestos Cases from 1989 Reinstated
April 29, 2019
Back in the late 1980s merchant mariners began filing asbestos mesothelioma lawsuits
against ship owner and manufacturing defendants in the Northern District of Ohio. Most of the claims languished in the court system – until April 9, 2019 when a U.S. District Court Appeals for the Third Circuit reinstated two lawsuits filed by the estates of two merchant marines.
Asbestos Lawsuits Stagnated
Hundreds of thousands of lawsuits were filed by merchant mariners, who became known as the maritime docket plaintiffs--or MARDOC. The claims were filed in the Northern District of Ohio on a theory of nationwide jurisdiction. In 1989, Ohio federal judge Thomas Lambros presided over the consolidated litigation and ruled that a significant number of the defendants were not subject to personal jurisdiction in Ohio. He granted the defendants –the ship owners—the option of either agreeing about jurisdiction transfer to Pennsylvania or waiving their personal jurisdiction defense and staying in Ohio.
The ship owners never technically waived their defense, nor did they take any action beyond requesting more time to decide the District Court’s decision to reinstate asbestos claims. But the ship owners challenged jurisdiction and Judge Lambros agreed. The MARDOC plaintiffs weren’t pleased with Lambros's decision to transfer their claims across the country and in 1990, filed a motion to transfer all defendants to a single forum.
In 1991, the cases were transferred and consolidated into multidistrict litigation (MDL) in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. The ship-owner defendants strongly opposed the consolidation and transfer, arguing that, because a litigation plan was already in place in the Northern District of Ohio, the cases should remain there. The MARDOC cases were nevertheless transferred to the MDL court where they stagnated from 1996 to 2008, when they were reassigned to Judge Robreno
and reactivated (MDL 875 in Re: Asbestos Productivity Litigation (No.V1))
In 2013 the Pennsylvania court held that the Northern District of Ohio lacked personal
jurisdiction over many of the defendants and that those defendants had not waived or forfeited their personal-jurisdiction defense. The Court granted 418 defendants' motions to dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction
In 2017, the Kalama v. Matson Navigation
ruling determined that judge Lambros in 1989 was outside his authority in the way he handled the personal jurisdiction challenge.
The defendants contended that they never waived their jurisdictional challenge, but Chief Judge D. Brooks Smith thought otherwise, based on their objection to transfer and their continued filings in the litigation, according to Law.com
.“Behavior that is consistent with waiver, and which indicates an intent to litigate the case on the merits, is sufficient to constitute a waiver, regardless of whether the parties also express an intent to preserve the defense,” Smith said. “By filing pleadings responding to substantive allegations in the merchant mariners’ complaints—after Lambros had unequivocally ruled that he did not have jurisdiction—the shipowners chose to actively litigate their case.”
On April 9, 2019, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit said that the court handling the MDL over maritime asbestos exposure shouldn’t have dismissed the estates’ claims for lack of personal jurisdiction. (The case is Asbestos Products Liability Litigation No. 17-3471
Most asbestos mesothelioma lawsuits
are filed against companies that knew asbestos was dangerous, but failed to inform employees that there was a risk. Two of the most common defendants are shipbuilders and shipowners. Almost one million asbestos claims have been filed since 1929, including more than 121,000 claims now reactivated in MDL 875.
If you worked as a shipbuilder, sailor, or dockworker and you -- or a member of your family--have developed an asbestos-related illness, you may be entitled to compensation. Even decades later, asbestos claims are still being filed.