May 2013

The California Supreme Court recently resolved conflicting opinions from state appellate intermediary courts on the subject of whether, or under what circumstances, a plaintiff may sue a dissolved out of State corporation in California. In Greb v. Diamond International Company, 56 Cal. 4th 243 (2013) the Court held that dissolved foreign corporations are not subject to suit in California where a direct conflict exists between California Corporations Code Section 2010 (which permits Plaintiffs to sue dissolved corporations for an indefinite period of time), and the corporate survival laws of the dissolved company’s state of incorporation.  See, Greb v. Diamond International Company, 56 Cal. 4th 243 (2013). (pdf download )

Factual Background of Case

In December of 2008, Plaintiff Greb filed an asbestos-related personal injury complaint in San Francisco Superior Court. His Complaint named Diamond International Company, a Delaware Corporation that had filed for dissolution in July of 2005, but which still had funds remaining on its liability insurance policy.

Defendant Diamond International Company, a dissolved Delaware corporation, filed a demurrer to the Complaint on the ground that, under Delaware’s corporate survival law, the action was not permitted because it was initiated more than three years after the corporation was dissolved.  Plaintiffs opposed the demurrer, arguing that California Corporations Code 2010 took precedence over Delaware law, and citing prior appellate court decisions and choice-of-law analysis. (pdf download of North American Asbestos decision)

The trial sustained the demurrer without leave to amend. The Court of Appeal affirmed.

The Supreme Court’s Decision

On final appeal, published February 21, 2013, the California Supreme Court affirmed and held that California Corporations Code Section 2010 only applied to dissolved California Corporations, not to foreign corporations. Notably, the Supreme Court considered and expressly rejected Plaintiffs’ alternative argument that, because Defendant was qualified to and did in fact conduct a large portion of its business prior to dissolution in the State of California, that it was a quasi-California corporation subject to California corporate survival law. In rejecting  Plaintiffs argument the Court stated: “We discern in the statutes no evidence that the Legislature intended…to accomplish the dramatic result ascribed to it by Plaintiffs – essentially, imposing on all…foreign corporations that are qualified to undertake repeated and successive business in California, the burden of complying with all provisions of…[California’s corporation code]…subject to what would often be a difficult choice of law analysis with regard to each California statutory provision that conflicts with a provision governing the corporation in its state of formation. As defendant suggests, such a scheme would require foreign corporations to “follow a litany of requirements regarding various corporate activities that their home state already regulates, creating innumerable, treacherous conflicts of law that the corporation would find impossible to navigate.”

Although not expressly referenced in the opinion, the California Supreme Court issued its ruling in the Greb within weeks of a seemingly related Delaware Court of Chancery decision holding that, even when funds remain on a dissolved Delaware corporation’s insurance policy,
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The House of Representatives subcommittee on Regulatory Reform, Commercial and Antitrust Law is currently considering the “Furthering Asbestos Claims Transparency (FACT) Act.”   The bipartisan legislation, introduced by Representatives Blake Farenthold (R-TX) and Jim Matheson (D-UT), aims to bring transparency to federal asbestos bankruptcy trusts. Bill H.R. 982 would require federal asbestos bankruptcy trusts to file quarterly reports concerning claims and other activities with bankruptcy courts. Supporters of the bill state that rooting out fraud and abuse of the asbestos bankruptcy trust system protects the “real victims who desperately need help.”

The “Fact Act” would amend the federal bankruptcy law to require federal asbestos bankruptcy trusts to publicly disclose quarterly reports that contain detailed information regarding the receipt of claims for asbestos-related injuries. The reports would include information regarding the name and exposure history of the claimant, and the basis for any payment made from the trust to the claimant.  The Fact Act would, however, protect disclosure of any confidential medical records and the claimant’s full social security number.

Passage of the Fact Act will better allow defendants to properly assess a plaintiff’s complete exposure history.  Peggy L. Ableman, a retired asbestos trial judge, testified that defendants are “often led to believe – erroneously – that their products were far more responsible for the plaintiff’s disease than what may have been the case, because they have no way of knowing the substance of an individual plaintiff’s claims.” Id (link above).  Having the knowledge of a plaintiff’s complete exposure history will allow defendants to more effectively defend themselves against misleading or erroneous evidence of the potential cause of a plaintiff’s disease.

As asbestos liabilities force more companies to file for bankruptcy, lawmakers are focused on preserving funds for “legitimate victims.” The concern is that secrecy and abuse by claimant’s lawyers undermine the original purpose of the trusts.

“The trust fund system originated to resolve present and future asbestos injury claims for victims deserving of compensation…Unfortunately, the system is susceptible to abuse and payment of fraudulent claims to the detriment of legitimate claimants. This legislation’s transparency measures will protect claimants’ confidentiality while ensuring the continued viability of the asbestos trust fund system.”

The concern over fraudulent asbestos trust activity was recently highlighted in a Wall Street Journal article, which reported discrepancies between claims made to the trusts and claims in state lawsuits. Concerns about fraud with regard to asbestos bankruptcy trusts is not new.  In fact, a similar bill introduced in 2012, never made it out of the Subcommittee on Courts, Commercial and Administrative Law for consideration. We will continue to keep our readers posted on the Fact Act of 2013 to see if this version of the bill can gain any traction among lawmakers.
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