Photo of Matthew T. Giardina

Matt is an associate in the Providence, Rhode Island office, and a member of the firm’s Complex Litigation Practice Group. He focuses his practice in the areas of products liability defense, mass torts, and other complex tort litigation as well as employment law and corresponding litigation.

Talk is cheap…until lawyers get involved.

“Lawyers: are persons who write a 10,000 word document and call it a brief.” – Franz Kafka

Mouthpiece: n. old-fashion slang for one’s lawyer. Burton’s Legal Thesaurus, 4E. (2007). Retrieved August 8, 2018, from https://legal-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/mouthpiece

There are thousands of sated comedians in the world who make a living off the caricature of loquacious litigators. Indeed, it is probably a fair statement that attorneys like to talk. Attend any bar event anywhere in the country and, more likely than not, you will find a group attorneys exchanging war stories. Lawyers, especially trial attorneys, relish opportunities to reminisce about trials won, how incomprehensible it is that they lost a “slam dunk” motion, or the occasional client they never want to see again.

Most of the time, idle attorney chatter over rubber chicken bar association dinners is entirely benign. However, public statements made by an attorney during a trial or the pendency of case that may go to trial is consequential all of the time. This is because, as Chief Justice Rehnquist observed, “a lawyer’s extrajudicial statements pose a threat to the fairness of a trial due to an attorney’s special access to information.” Gentile v. State Bar of Nevada, 501 U.S. 1031, 1071 (1991). In theory, an attorney’s comments on the scope of evidence or a case’s merits could predispose a jury pool and, thus, unintentionally (or deliberately) prejudice a judicial outcome.

Continue Reading Trial Publicity: Public Statements Made by an Attorney during Court Proceedings have Limits

In DeLong v. Rhode Island Sports Center, Inc., et al., a former college hockey player successfully appealed a Rhode Island Superior Court decision granting an ice rink’s motion for summary judgment in a case alleging that he was poisoned by an ice resurfacer after finding that circumstantial evidence present in the record was sufficient to raise a factual dispute. 182 A.3d 1129 (R.I. 2018).

 

The plaintiff alleged that he inhaled noxious fumes that emanated from a malfunctioning ice resurfacer while playing in an ice hockey game at an enclosed arena in February, 2011. However, the plaintiff’s first indication that he had breathed injurious air resurfacing machine air did not come until the following morning when he and a teammate visited an emergency room after coughing up blood, from which doctors deduced that the plaintiff suffered from an acute lung injury as a result of carbon monoxide and nitrogen dioxide poisoning.

 

Accordingly, the plaintiff filed suit alleging that the ice rink defendants: negligently maintained their facility by allowing noxious fumes to permeate the air; failed to exercise reasonable care; or failed to provide adequate warnings. However, following discovery, the defendants successfully persuaded the trial court to grant summary judgment. “They argued that there were no genuine issues of material fact regarding (1) the existence of a dangerous or defective condition; (2) the notice to defendants of any such condition; and (3) the causal connection between that condition and any injury that may have been sustained by plaintiff.” Id. at 1131.

 

Specifically, the defendants pointed to: the plaintiff’s deposition testimony that he neither saw nor smelled any unusual fumes while at the ice rink; the lack of scientific evidence as to the air quality in the arena on the night in question; and evidence that the ice rink attendant’s twice-daily notation of the air quality had shown zero carbon monoxide, which the Rhode Island Department of Health confirmed the following day. Moreover, the ice rink’s facilities manager and the ice resurfacing machine driver each testified that neither was aware of any complaints regarding noxious fumes. The trial court, furthermore, intimated that the plaintiff’s “sickness was from another source, independent of the defendant’s facility” because the Department of Health’s testing was “more objective” and because the only people who fell ill were from the college hockey team. Id. at 1133. Based on this, the trial court granted summary judgment ruling that a lack of evidence that a defective condition existed at the sports center on day of the hockey game and it appeared that no one from the ice rink had notice of any such defect, if there was one.

 

On appeal, however, the plaintiff noted that: (1) the Department of Health does not and did not test nitrogen dioxide levels and did not test carbon monoxide levels until a day after the alleged incident, implying that poisonous ice resurfacer emissions had subsided by the time testing occurred; (2) his teammates and coach stated that they smelled gas in the air the night of the game; (3) the coach executed an affidavit stating that he witnessed the ice resurfacer malfunction and produce visible emissions; and (4) his teammates also ended up suffering very similar symptoms as he did.

 

Moreover—and perhaps most crucially—the plaintiff revealed that the defendants purchased an electric, non-propane-fueled ice resurfacing machine just months after the incident. As such, the plaintiff sought to take advantage of Rhode Island’s minority approach to the subsequent remedial measure rule. That is, unlike the Federal Rules of Evidence and the majority of states, under Rhode Island law:

 

When, after an event, measures are taken which, if taken previously, would have made the event less likely to occur, evidence of the subsequent measures is admissible.

R.I. R. Evid. 407.

 

Thus, the Supreme Court held that the trial court could and should have considered this evidence to reject the ice rink’s motion for summary judgement.

 

In its review of the plaintiff’s appeal, the court clearly indicated that even circumstantial evidence, such as the ice rink upgrading to an electric ice resurfacer, was sufficient to rise to the level of a materially factual dispute and it held that the ultimate determination of whether a dangerous-or-defective-condition existed or whether the ice rink had notice of any alleged defect was best suited for a jury’s review. Additionally, the Supreme Court repeated its caution that “issues of negligence are ordinarily not susceptible to summary adjudication, but should be resolved by trial in the ordinary manner.” Id. at 1137 (quoting Gliottone v. Ethier, 870 A.2d 1022, 1028 (R.I. 2005)).

 

DeLong is an instructive reminder that summary judgment is a powerful, but drastic tool. Even though a court may be presented with compelling, “more objective” evidence, “the purpose of summary judgment is issue finding, not issue determination.” Estate of Giuliano v. Giuliano, 949 A.2d 389, 391 (R.I. 2008). Conflating these two principles only confuses the ultimate question to be decided on summary judgment—whether, based on the evidence presented, there are remaining issues of material fact and whether the matter should proceed to trial or face dismissal on some or all issues.

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On Friday, April 28, 2017, the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York dismissed, in its entirety, John and Michele Clark’s asbestos personal injury action based on the doctrine of judicial estoppel. In short, the Court ruled that the Plaintiffs’ lawsuit could not proceed without damaging the integrity and proper functioning of the judicial system. The reason: Plaintiffs did not disclose their personal injury claims before receiving their Chapter 13 Bankruptcy discharge.

The background of Plaintiffs’ personal injury lawsuit is entwined with two other actions. First, Plaintiffs filed for a Chapter 13 bankruptcy petition in Connecticut in February 2010. A Bankruptcy Plan was confirmed approximately five months later, in July 2010. In March 2016, Plaintiffs declared that they had made all their payments as prescribed by their bankruptcy plan and requested that the bankruptcy court issue an order discharging their debts. The bankruptcy court entered such an order in August 2016.

Second, in August 2015—a year before the Chapter 13 petition was discharged—Plaintiffs filed an asbestos-related personal injury action in Illinois state court. The Illinois suit came about one month after Mr. Clark was diagnosed with mesothelioma. Plaintiffs alleged that Mr. Clark’s illness was caused by exposure to asbestos during his service in the United States Air Force as well as his employment with an aircraft manufacturer. Plaintiffs, however, did not inform the bankruptcy court of their asbestos claims, as bankruptcy law requires. Indeed, in a Chapter 13 bankruptcy, petitioners have an ongoing obligation to disclose any asset that accrues between the initiation and closing of their bankruptcy case as “[e]very conceivable interest of the debtor, future, nonpossessory, contingent, speculative, and derivative, is within the reach of [the bankruptcy estate].” Chartschlaa v. Nationwide Mut. Ins. Co., 538 F.3d 116, 122 (2d Cir. 2008). Thus, by not amending their Chapter 13 schedules, Plaintiffs, in effect, were concealing an asset that rightfully belonged in their bankruptcy trustee’s care. Accordingly, after a defendant informed Plaintiffs of its intention to file a motion to dismiss based on judicial estoppel owing to their failure to disclose the existence of their Illinois action, Plaintiffs’ voluntarily dismissed the Illinois lawsuit.

Then, in July 2016—again, while Plaintiffs’ bankruptcy case was still open—Plaintiffs filed a second asbestos personal injury suit raising the same claims as those raised in Illinois, but this time in New York state court. Shortly thereafter, the defendants in the New York action removed the case to the Southern District and Plaintiffs’ bankruptcy case closed, without Plaintiffs ever amending their Chapter 13 schedules. The New York defendants then promptly filed their motion to dismiss based on judicial estoppel.

The defendants argued that Plaintiffs’ claims had to be judicially estopped as a matter of law because Plaintiffs took inconsistent positions before the Bankruptcy Court and the Southern District. On the one hand, Plaintiffs, by not fulfilling their statutory obligation to amend their schedule of assets in the bankruptcy case, declared that they had no foreseeable assets owing to them. On the other hand, Plaintiffs claimed in their New York action that they were entitled to monetary damages as a result of Mr. Clark’s asbestos exposure. In granting the defendants’ motion, the Southern District noted that “judicial estoppel is a harsh rule.” Clark, et al. v. Advanced Composites Group, et al., No. C.A. 16 Civ. 6422 (GBD), *10 (S.D.N.Y., Apr. 28, 2017). But, its application was appropriate and essential. The Court explained that:

Plaintiffs’ duty to disclose assets did not terminate upon confirmation of their bankruptcy plan or when payments were completed. Rather, the disclosure duty was a ‘continuing one’ which continued until the bankruptcy case was closed.

Id. at *8.

To allow Plaintiffs to continue with their personal injury action after failing to disclose potential assets to the bankruptcy court would be intolerable as they unfairly would have benefitted from a windfall. For example, “had Plaintiffs’ cause of action been disclosed during the bankruptcy proceeding, their creditors might have pursued a higher interest rate, or taken a different view of the appropriateness and viability of the [bankruptcy plan].” Id. at *9. Moreover, because the integrity of the bankruptcy system predominately relies on debtors’ “full and honest disclosures,” Plaintiffs were not permitted to change their story.

 

battleshipIt is no secret that, in many instances, injured tort plaintiffs would prefer to file their cases in state court as opposed to federal court. One of the many reasons for this preference is that the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure place express limits on the amount of discovery available to parties.  Further, the Federal Rules of Evidence tend to be more stringent, as are requirements for expert witnesses.  These, and the notion that federal courts tend to grant motions to dismiss and motions for summary judgment more frequently and award lower verdicts, means that plaintiffs would often rather file their cases in state court and conversely, defendants often prefer to litigate these cases in federal court. Consequently, when possible, defendants often will remove a case filed in state court to the applicable U.S. District Court where the state action was pending. One such method of removal is found in 28 U.S.C. § 1442(a)(1), the federal-officer removal statute. Specifically, § 1442(a)(1) allows a defendant that acted under any United States agency or officer to remove a plaintiff’s suit to federal court if any of the alleged claims or defenses relate to “any act under color of such office.” This is a frequently used tool of military contractors to get their government contractor defense heard by a federal court.

Government contractor immunity is a recognized federal defense based on public policy (See Boyle v. United Technologies Corp., 487 U.S. 500 (1988)). It is an offshoot of the governmental immunity doctrine codified in 28 U.S.C. § 2680, which insulates the federal government from suit in relation to the performance of its discretionary actions. Military contractors may be extended the benefits of §2680 in a product liability action if they can demonstrate that: (1) the government “approved reasonably precise specifications” for their product; (2) the product conformed to those specifications; and (3) the contractor warned the government about the dangers in the use of the product that were known to it but not to the government.”  Boyle, 487 U.S. at 512.

Military contractors of all stripes expressed a collective sigh of relief on January 20, 2017, when the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals fortified the federal officer removal statute in Zeringue v. Crane Co., 2017 WL 279496 (5th Cir. 2017), a decision which overturned the Eastern District of Louisiana’s remand of an asbestos plaintiff’s suit to Orleans Parish District Court. In Zeringue, the Plaintiff filed suit in Louisiana state court alleging that he first was exposed to asbestos while serving aboard U.S. Navy ships during the 1950s. Crane, one of more than twenty defendants in the case, was a major supplier of asbestos-containing valves, among other equipment, to the Navy. Accordingly, Crane invoked the federal officer removal statute so that it could litigate the case in federal district court. It argued that removal was proper because “any product [Zeringue] alleges Crane Co. manufactured for or supplied to the Navy (and any product literature, labeling, or warnings that accompanied the product) would be subject to Navy specifications and requirements.” Zeringue, 2017 WL 279496 at *1. As such, Crane argued that “[f]ederal officers exercised their discretion regarding whether (1) asbestos was used in the product, and (2) whether a warning would accompany the product.” Id.

In support of its position, Crane proffered three affidavits. The first, from Crane’s Vice-President for Environment, Heath, and Safety, stated that “all equipment supplied by Crane Co. to the Navy was built in accordance with [Navy] specifications” which “governed all aspects of a piece of equipment.” Id. at *4. The second affidavit was prepared by a former admiral in command of operation and maintenance of Navy ships who explained that “[e]quipment could not have been installed aboard Navy vessels unless it was first determined by the Navy to be in conformity with all applicable Navy specifications.” Id. Finally, a former Navy physician that oversaw naval industrial hygiene testified that “the Navy’s knowledge of asbestos dangers ‘has been quite complete when compared to available knowledge over time, and at least by the early 1940s, the Navy had become a leader in the field of occupational medicine relating to, among other things, asbestos dust inhalation exposure.’” Id.

The District Court, however, sided with Zeringue in his attempt to return the case to state jurisdiction. Notably, the District judge agreed that Crane “allege[d] all the elements for…federal officer removal” and “provided evidence that permitted a ‘plausibl[e] assum[ption] that any equipment that Crane built for the Navy was indeed subject to detailed specifications.’” Id. at *1. Yet, Zeringue’s case was sent back to the state court because the federal court did not believe Crane proved that the Navy exercised discretion over the equipment Crane supplied.

Crane appealed the District Court’s ruling to the Fifth Circuit, which thoroughly rejected the lower court’s holding. The appeals court explained that a federal defense, such as government-contractor immunity, must only be colorable to permit federal jurisdiction. A colorable federal defense is one that is material, not “wholly insubstantial and frivolous,” and not made solely for the purpose of obtaining federal jurisdiction. Id. at *2. The Circuit Court noted that the affidavits submitted by Crane, although not conclusive, fell well within the scope of colorability:

[The documents] are not definitive proof that Zeringue’s asbestos exposure resulted from the Navy’s—not Crane’s—discretionary decision, nor are they definitive proof that Crane did not need to supply the Navy with information regarding the dangers of asbestos because of the Navy’s existing knowledge. But definitive proof is not necessary for removal, and the military specifications and affidavits do suffice as a non-insubstantial and non-frivolous basis upon which Crane may assert government-contractor immunity.

Id. at *4. (Emphasis added).

In sum, the Fifth Circuit has joined a number of other federal Circuit Courts in holding that a removing defendant need not win its case on removal.  Instead, the removing defendant need only demonstrate that it has a colorable federal claim or defense in order to litigate the case in federal court.

craft beer 2Following a five-week trial, a Providence jury found Twin River Casino, a Providence liquor store, and a teenage drunk driver liable in a dram shop case where the plaintiff, Alissa Moulton, sustained serious spinal injuries following an April 24, 2010 motor vehicle accident. Specifically, Moulton was paralyzed from the chest down when she and her friend, Cristina Sianpi, were ejected from the back seat of a 1997 Toyota Camry.  The car’s driver, 18 year-old defendant Alexander Arango, was Moulton’s boyfriend and the father of their child. According to reports, Arango lost control of the Camry, which struck a median barrier, crossed the two right lanes of the highway, rolled over, and collided—rear end first—with a tree on the highway’s grass shoulder.

Although historically known as “conservative” in terms of verdict awards, it took this particular jury less than two days of deliberation before awarding Moulton $23 million in damages, plus interest. Additionally, the jury assigned 70 percent responsibility to the underage driver, 20 percent to Twin River Casino, and 10 percent to Royal Liquors, a Providence liquor store that allegedly sold alcohol to Arango. Under Rhode Island law, each defendant is jointly and severally liable for the entire amount of damages regardless of the percentage of responsibility. (R.I.G.L. § 10-6-2.)  The defendants against whom a money judgment is entered are also, however, entitled to a set-off in the amount of either: (1) the total amount paid by each settled defendant; or (2) the percentage of fault assigned to each of those settled defendants by the trier of fact, whichever is greater.  (R.I.G.L. § 10-6-7.)

At trial, Moulton, who is now confined to a wheelchair, was represented by Providence personal injury firm of Mandell Schwartz & Boisclair.  Her lawyers argued before Judge William E. Carnes, Jr., that Twin River was negligent in serving alcohol to a visibly intoxicated Arango, and that Twin River violated the Rhode Island Liquor Liability Act (R.I.G.L § 3-14-1 et. seq.) by negligently serving the underage driver.

For his part, Arango, was sentenced to two years in prison after pleading guilty in June 2010 to two counts of driving to endanger resulting in serious bodily injury, and one count of driving under the influence.

A spokesperson for Twin River has suggested that the casino may seek to appeal the decision, as it is “inconsistent” with evidence put on by the defense.

 

About the Authors

Kenneth R. Costa is a partner with Manion Gaynor & Manning. He is a member of the multi-state Products Liability Litigation Team, with a primary focus in insurance defense, products liability, asbestos-related and toxic torts cases in Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Connecticut.

Matthew Giardina is an associate in Manion Gaynor & Manning’s Providence office, and a member of the firm’s Products Liability and Complex Tort Litigation Group. He focuses his practice in the areas of products liability defense, mass torts, and other complex tort litigation.