The opinion of the court was delivered by: Eduardo C. Robreno, J.
District of North Dakota : : Case Nos.: See Exhibit A
I. BACKGROUND............................................... 2
II. LEGAL STANDARD........................................... 3
A. SUMMARY JUDGMENT STANDARD........................... 3
B. THE APPLICABLE LAW.................................. 4
C. PRODUCT IDENTIFICATION/CAUSATION UNDER NORTH DAKOTA LAW................................................. 4
III. DISCUSSION............................................... 8
A. DEFENDANT'S ARGUMENT................................ 8
B. PLAINTIFFS' ARGUMENTS............................... 8
Before the Court are Motions for Summary Judgment in nineteen (19) various cases originating in North Dakota, all of which are part of MDL-875, the consolidated asbestos products liability multidistrict litigation pending in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. Defendant Foster Wheeler Corporation ("Foster Wheeler") has moved for summary judgment in each case on grounds of insufficient evidence.
The "Amoco Cases" were transferred from the United States District Court for the District of North Dakota to the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania in 1992 (single plaintiff cases) and 1993 (multi- plaintiff action on behalf of sixty-six (66) different plaintiffs), where they were administratively consolidated for pre-trial purposes as part of MDL-875.
Each of the decedents in these cases ("Decedents") worked at the same Amoco refinery in Mandan, North Dakota and was thereafter diagnosed with an asbestos-related illness. Defendant Foster Wheeler built a 140-foot high Alkylation unit at the Mandan Amoco refinery in 1957. Defendant Foster Wheeler has moved for summary judgment in many of the "Amoco Cases," arguing that there is insufficient product identification evidence to support a finding of causation with respect to its product(s).*fn1 Foster Wheeler asserts that North Dakota law applies.
Plaintiffs in nineteen (19) of the cases (listed in Exhibit A, attached hereto) have opposed Foster Wheeler's motions, contending that summary judgment is not warranted because there is sufficient circumstantial evidence from which a reasonable jury could conclude that their Decedent's asbestos- related illness was caused by exposure to Foster Wheeler's product(s). Plaintiffs assert that North Dakota law applies.
A. Summary Judgment Standard
Summary judgment is appropriate if there are no genuine issues of material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a). "A motion for summary judgment will not be defeated by 'the mere existence' of some disputed facts, but will be denied when there is a genuine issue of material fact." Am. Eagle Outfitters v. Lyle & Scott Ltd., 584 F.3d 575, 581 (3d Cir. 2009) (quoting Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247-248 (1986)). A fact is "material" if proof of its existence or non-existence might affect the outcome of the litigation, and a dispute is "genuine" if "the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party." Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248.
In undertaking this analysis, the court views the facts in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. "After making all reasonable inferences in the nonmoving party's favor, there is a genuine issue of material fact if a reasonable jury could find for the nonmoving party." Pignataro v. Port Auth. of N.Y. & N.J., 593 F.3d 265, 268 (3d Cir. 2010) (citing Reliance Ins. Co. v. Moessner, 121 F.3d 895, 900 (3d Cir. 1997)). While the moving party bears the initial burden of showing the absence of a genuine issue of material fact, meeting this obligation shifts the burden to the non-moving party who must "set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial." Anderson, 477 U.S. at 250.
The parties have all agreed that North Dakota substantive law applies. Therefore, this Court will apply North Dakota law in deciding Foster Wheeler's Motions for Summary Judgment. See Erie R.R. Co. v. Tompkins, 304 U.S. 64 (1938); see also Guaranty Trust Co. v. York, 326 U.S. 99, 108 (1945).
C. Product Identification/Causation Under North Dakota Law
This Court has previously addressed the issue of product identification/causation under North Dakota law and has thoroughly explored the contours of that state's law. See, e.g., Various Plaintiffs v. Various Defendants (In Re Asbestos Products Liability Litigation), 2010 WL 3397473 (E.D. Pa. Aug. 26, 2010)(Robreno, J.)(adopting the July 30, 2010 Report and Recommendation of Chief Magistrate Judge Thomas J. Rueter regarding summary judgment motions of defendant S.O.S. Products Company, Inc., appearing at 2010 WL 3397472); Miller v. ACandS, Inc., 09-68111, 2011 WL 5505429 (E.D. Pa. June 23, 2011)(Robreno, J.). In Miller, the Court wrote:
The Supreme Court of North Dakota has not addressed what evidence a Plaintiff must present in order to survive summary judgment in the asbestos context. Under North Dakota law, "a proximate cause is a cause which had a substantial part in bringing about the harm or injury either immediately or through happenings which follow one another." Andrews v. J.W. O'Hearn, 387 N.W.2d 716, 726 (N.D. 1986) (internal citations omitted). There must be a causal link between the defendant's conduct and the injury. Andrews, 387 N.W.2d at 727 (citing Mourn v. Maercklein, 201 N.W.2d 399, 402 (N.D. 1972)). "'Proximate cause [is]'that cause which, as a natural and continuous sequence, unbroken by any controlling intervening cause, produces the injury, and without which it would not have occurred.'" Andrews, 387 N.W.2d at 727 (quoting Johnson v. Minneapolis, St. P. & S.S.M. Ry. Co., 54 N.D. 351, 209 N.W. 786, 789 (N.D. 1926); Knorr v. K--Mart Corp., 300 N.W.2d 47 (N.D. 1980)).
Magistrate Judge Karen K. Klein of the United States District Court for the District of North Dakota applied a liberal product identification standard in recommending that defendants' motions for summary judgment be denied in Adolph v. A.P.I., Inc. (D.N.D. 1991). Magistrate Judge Klein Concluded that co-worker testimony or evidence that a plaintiff was employed by a company at the same time that the company was using defendant's asbestos-containing products could be sufficient to survive summary judgment and that a plaintiff need not specifically describe exposure to the defendant's products. Id. at 3. Magistrate Judge Klein also recognized that, even if the defendants were entitled to summary judgment as to product identification, since they had not moved for summary judgment as to plaintiff's conspiracy claims, "no useful purpose would be served by the piecemeal granting of partial summary judgments on exposure when a defendant must nonetheless remain in the case because of the conspiracy claims." Id. at 4. Magistrate Judge Klein did not consider any of the evidence presented against the defendants and noted that "[t]he motions may be renewed as to particular plaintiffs at trial." Id.
In an unpublished opinion, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit addressed product identification and causation in the asbestos context. Bossert v. Keene Corp., 19 F.3d 1437, 1994 WL 108844 (8th Cir. 1994). The United States District Court for the District of North Dakota denied defendant MacArthur Corp.'s motion for judgment as a matter of law and MacArthur appealed this decision. Id. at *1. The court noted that, [a] cause is proximate if it 'had a substantial part in bringing about the harm or injury either immediately or through happenings which follow one another.' Andrews, 387 N.W.2d at 727. North Dakota courts have not addressed the standard for proving causation in the specific context of an asbestos personal injury case, and MacArthur urges us to use the 'frequency, regularity, and proximity' test used in other states. See, e.g., Jackson v. Anchor Packing Co., 994 F.2d 1295, 1301--03 (8th Cir. 1993) (applying Arkansas law); Lohrmann v. Pittsburgh Corning Corp., 782 F.2d 1156, 1162--63 (4th Cir. 1986) (applying Maryland law).
Plaintiff's proof of exposure consisted of Mr. Bossert's testimony that he worked at the Amoco refinery for a total of approximately eight months and the testimony of Robert Clooten, a former insulation tradesperson at the Amoco refinery who testified that about half of the cements installed in the Amoco refinery from 1954 until 1965 were manufactured by MacArthur and that about half of this pipe covering was still in place. 1994 WL 108844, at *2. The court concluded that the plaintiff's proof of exposure was "entirely circumstantial" and that "[b]ecause Bossert failed to produce substantial evidence of exposure to MacArthur's products ... Bossert cannot satisfy any proximate cause standard." Id. at *1--2. Accordingly, the court reversed the district court and granted MacArthur's motion for judgment as a matter of law. Id. at *2.
The Bossert court granted defendant's motion for summary judgment based on evidence that the plaintiff worked a refinery and co-worker testimony that the defendant's product was present at the refinery. In Adolf, Magistrate Judge Klein denied defendants' motions for summary judgment in this scenario, but relied on the fact that the defendants would not be dismissed from the cases even if the motions were granted and noted that the defendants would have the opportunity to renew these motions. This Court will not attempt to predict the law of North Dakota when the Supreme Court of North Dakota has not yet addressed product identification in the asbestos context. Rather, in keeping with the general products liability standard, Plaintiff must merely raise a genuine issue of material fact as to whether exposure to the Defendant's product proximately caused the Plaintiff's injury. Andrews, 337 N.W.2d at 727.
Miller, 2011 WL 5505429 at *1 n.1.
There have been no new decisions from any court of appeals in North Dakota since this Court's discussion of the North Dakota product identification standard in June of 2011.
Foster Wheeler concedes that it built a 140-foot high Alkylation unit at the Amoco facility in 1957. It argues, however, that Plaintiffs in these cases have failed to identify sufficient evidence to support a finding of causation with respect to its work or its product(s) at the Amoco facility.
Plaintiffs contend generally that they have identified sufficient product identification evidence under the standard that the court should apply. Plaintiffs acknowledge that any asbestos associated with the Alkylation unit was asbestos of a component part manufactured by a company other than Foster Wheeler (including, specifically, Johns-Manville). Plaintiffs cite to state trial court and federal district court cases to argue that a liberal application of the "substantial factor" test is warranted under the precedent of trial courts in North Dakota, and that circumstantial evidence is sufficient to survive summary judgment. Of particular note, Plaintiffs cite to Nogosek v. Asbestos Corp. of America, No. A2-87-173, 1989 WL 1635767 (D.N.D. 1989), quoting the following excerpt:
A) Circumstantial Evidence
When claiming wrongful death, a plaintiff must show that he or she has been exposed to petitioner's asbestos products. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 319 (1986). When Clarence Nogosek was deposed, he failed to identify by name many of the defendants in this case. The defendants, however, incorrectly assume that unless Mr. Nogosek was able to specifically describe exposure to a defendant's products, summary judgment is in order. This is not the case.
Mild exposure to asbestos can be a factor in proving plaintiff's injury. See Rocco v. Johns--Manville Corp., 754 F.2d 110, 113 (3rd Cir. 1983). Evidence of exposure alone can allow an inference of injury. See Roehling v. Nations' Gypsum Co. Gold Bond Bldg. Products, 786 F.2d 1225, 1228 (4th Cir. 1986). Circumstantial evidence presented to the Court in this case allows a potential finding that Mr. ...