Published Decision: Knox v. MetalForming, Inc., 914 F.3d 685 (1st Cir. 2019)

MG+M Boston Attorneys Javier Flores, Eric Skelly, and Thaddeus Lenkiewicz authored the appellate briefing. Attorney Flores presented oral argument.

The extent to which state and federal courts may exercise specific personal jurisdiction over foreign defendants has long been an area of ambiguity and disharmony. Notably, the U.S. Supreme Court’s two most recent attempts to address the issue both failed to produce a majority opinion. The lower courts have thus been tasked with delineating the boundaries of jurisdictional authority, armed only that the competing tests articulated in the Supreme Court’s fractured pronouncements. On January 30, 2019, the Court of Appeals for the First Circuit issued a decision in the matter of Knox v. MetalForming, Inc. and Schechtl Maschinenbau GmbH[1], which provides much needed clarity concerning the relevant factors and applicable standards for the exercise of personal jurisdiction over foreign product manufacturers.

  1. Case-Specific Jurisdiction Precedent and the Stream-of-Commerce Analysis

For the exercise of personal jurisdiction to be constitutional, a defendant must have “certain minimum contacts” with the forum state such that the maintenance of the suit does not offend “traditional notions of fair play and substantial justice.”[2] In the absence of general jurisdiction, a plaintiff must establish that the court has case-specific jurisdiction over the defendant, for which a three-part test applies. First, the plaintiff’s claim must directly arise out of, or relate to, the defendant’s forum-state activities. Second, the defendant’s forum contacts must represent a purposeful availment of the privilege of conducting activities in the forum state. Third, the exercise of jurisdiction must be reasonable.

While the test is well established, it is “’not susceptible of mechanical application” and requires a highly fact-specific inquiry.[3] Particularly, the Supreme Court’s efforts to provide guidance in the application of “purposeful availment” prong to foreign manufacturers has resulted in competing variations of the so-called “stream-of-commerce” test. The Supreme Court first set forth the “stream-of-commerce” standard in World-Wide Volkswagen v. Woodson, stating that a “forum State does not exceed its powers under the Due Process Clause if it asserts personal jurisdiction over a corporation that delivers its products into the stream of commerce with the expectation that they will be purchased by consumers in the forum State.”[4] In Asahi Metal Indus. v. Super. Ct., Justice O’Connor, writing for three other justices, stated that placing a defective product into the stream of commerce combined with “an intent or purpose to serve the market in the forum State” satisfied purposeful availment.[5] This “stream-of-commerce plus” standard, sought “[a]dditional conduct of the defendant” to “indicate an intent or purpose to serve the market in the forum State.”[6] Examples included designing the product for the market in the forum state, advertising in the forum state, establishing channels for providing regular advice to customers in the forum state, or marketing the product through a distributor who has agreed to serve as the sales agent in the forum state.
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MG+M Boston Attorneys Eric Skelly and Christos Koutrobis successfully obtained dismissals for two clients in James T. Casey, Jr. v. Apax Partners et al., 1:18-cv-11211-DJC, a case that was pending at the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts. On behalf of MG+M’s foreign client, a motion to dismiss for improper service and lack of personal jurisdiction was granted by Judge Casper. MG+M navigated a voluntary dismissal for its other client through the discovery process by demonstrating, based on the evidence, that the client was not liable for the product at issue.

Plaintiff alleged in his lawsuit that he was ordered to wear an electronic monitoring bracelet as part of his pre-trial probation. In his complaint, he stated that the bracelet wrongfully indicated that he was outside of the approved geographic area, which resulted in two days of imprisonment. As such, he brought forth claims against the defendants under the Massachusetts’ consumer protection laws as well as claims for design defect and negligence.

In its decision on defendant’s motion to dismiss, the Court highlighted Plaintiff’s allegation that the defendant, a foreign entity, was liable because its unidentified affiliate assumed the rights and liabilities of the former manufacturer of the electronic monitoring bracelet. The Court noted that even if the Plaintiff established that this affiliate conducted activities in Massachusetts that would subject it to the Court’s jurisdiction, Plaintiff still would need to prove that the affiliate’s conduct could be imputed to the foreign entity by “piercing the corporate veil.” Under Massachusetts law, corporations are presumed to be separate entities. To ignore corporate separateness a party must demonstrate: 1) “active and direct participation by the representatives of one corporation, apparently exercising some form of pervasive control, in the activities of another and there is some fraudulent or injurious consequence of the intercorporate relationship;” or 2) “a confused intermingling of activity of two or more corporations engaged in a common enterprise with substantial disregard of the separate nature of the corporate entities, or serious ambiguity about the manner and capacity in which the various corporations and their respective representatives are acting.” My Bread Baking Co. v. Cumberland Farms, Inc., 353 Mass. 614, 619 (1968). Plaintiff attempted to satisfy these requirements through evidence that suggested the foreign entity merely advised its unidentified affiliate during the acquisition of the electronic monitoring business. The Court, however, held that this evidence fell short of the threshold to disregard corporate separateness and “pierce the corporate veil.” Accordingly, the Court held that it did not have personal jurisdiction over the foreign entity.

This decision reinforces the long-standing principle of corporate separateness and should be beneficial to foreign defendants challenging personal jurisdiction in the future.
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The overwhelming majority of courts (including all seven federal circuits that considered the issue) have rejected the so-called “innovator liability” doctrine.[1]  In 2017, however, the California Supreme Court in T.H. v. Novartis Pharm. Corp.[2] unanimously recognized the doctrine holding that brand-name prescription drug manufacturers owe a duty to warn to consumers who use generic drugs.[3]  In March of 2018, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) considered the issue, and took a middle ground.  Specifically, in Rafferty v. Merck & Co., Inc.,[4] the SJC held that plaintiffs who ingest the generic form of a drug may bring failure to warn claims against the brand-name manufacturer of the drug if the brand-name defendant acted recklessly by “intentionally fail[ing] to update the label on its drug while knowing or having reason to know of an unreasonable risk of death or grave bodily injury associated with its use.”[5]  In so doing, the SJC reasoned that a plaintiff is, in fact, injured by a brand-name product’s label despite never having used said product because statutes require identical labeling of the generically manufactured version.[6]

The Facts

In 2010, a physician prescribed Finasteride, the generic version of the brand name drug Proscar, to treat Rafferty’s enlarged prostate.[7]  Rafferty experienced anticipated temporary side effects from the drug, causing him to stop taking the medication.[8]  Rafferty, however, continued to experience these side effects and his physician informed him that they could actually continue “indefinitely.”[9]  The potential lifelong side effects of this drug were not disclosed within the brand-name manufacturer’s nor the mirrored generic manufacturer’s warning label.[10]  Rafferty presented evidence that the brand-name manufacturer became aware of these potential long-term side effects by 2008, when it updated Proscar’s warning label in select European markets to include this risk.[11]

Rafferty filed suit against the brand-name manufacturer in 2013, asserting a claim of negligence for, inter alia, failure to warn and for violation of the Commonwealth’s Consumer Protection Statute, G.L. c. 93A.[12]  The Superior Court dismissed Rafferty’s claims, “ruling that [the brand-name defendant] owed no duty of care to [him].”[13]  The SJC took over the case by its own motion from the Appeals Court.[14]

The SJC Weighs In

Traditionally, Massachusetts has not recognized liability for products manufactured by others.[15]  However, the SJC noted that The Restatement (Third) of Torts allows a modification to this general rule in exceptional cases.[16] The SJC considered innovator liability to require such a modification given the certainty that a user of a generic drug will rely on the label fashioned by the brand-name manufacturer and as state law shields failure to warn claims from generic manufacturers, leaving plaintiffs without recourse for their injuries.[17] However, the SJC also recognized that imposing innovator liability could impact the public policy of encouraging innovation in the drug market and a potential increase in drug pricing.[18]

Balancing these competing interests, the court held that, “a brand-name manufacturer
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Overview

On March 30, 2018, Judge Rya Zobel of the United States District Court (District of Massachusetts) issued a memorandum of decision on two Defendants’ (NSTAR Electric, formerly Boston Edison, and General Electric) Motions for Summary Judgment in an asbestos personal injury and wrongful death matter, June Stearns and Clifford Stearns as Co-Executors of the Estate of Wayne Oliver v. Metropolitan Life Insurance Co., et al., that addresses multiple issues, including statute of repose, strict liability and liability of a premises owner.

Background

Plaintiff’s decedent, Wayne Oliver, worked on the construction of two power plants, Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station (Massachusetts) and Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant (Maryland), between 1971 and 1978 and his estate alleges that Mr. Oliver was exposed to asbestos-containing products present at those sites. Defendant NSTAR Electric (formerly Boston Edison)(“Boston Edison”) owned the Pilgrim premises.  Defendant General Electric (“GE”) allegedly designed, manufactured, and sold generators used at Pilgrim and at Calvert Cliffs.  Oliver worked as a pipe inspector for Bechtel, the architect-engineer on projects at both Pilgrim and Calvert Cliffs.

As the owner of Pilgrim, Boston Edison conducted safety audits while the construction proceeded, but primary responsibility for the site construction rested with GE and Bechtel: GE for the steam supply system, nuclear fuel system, and the generators themselves; and Bechtel for everything else. In that capacity, Bechtel hired and supervised all subcontractors on the project, including an insulation installer, New England Insulation (“NEI”). Although NEI reported to Bechtel, it installed the asbestos-containing insulation around the generators pursuant to directions from both Bechtel and GE, and pursuant to GE’s specifications that specifically required asbestos-containing insulation.  The Court also recognized that at both Pilgrim and at Calvert Cliffs, GE had rejected suggestions or proposals for an asbestos-free insulation alternative.

Oliver allegedly sustained exposure to asbestos at both sites while inspecting pipe near dusty thermal insulation as other subcontractors installed it around the generators. He was subsequently diagnosed with mesothelioma in 2015 and died in 2016.  In denying summary judgment to GE and granting summary judgment to Boston Edison, the Court found that:  (1) while the construction work performed by GE met the definition of an improvement to real property for purposes of the statute of repose, public policy considerations necessitated an exception to the application of the statute in cases involving alleged asbestos-related disease; (2) the installation of asbestos insulation was not an abnormally dangerous activity; (3) Boston Edison did not exercise sufficient control over the work at issue to be held negligent; and (4) a premises owner, such as Boston Edison, has no duty to warn where the subcontractor has knowledge of the hazard which is equal to or greater than that of the premises owner.

Application of Statute of Repose

GE argued protection from Plaintiffs’ claims under Massachusetts’s six-year statute of repose, which bars claims concerning “improvements to real property.” Under Massachusetts law, this involves a “permanent addition” versus “ordinary repair.” Whether this statute applied to asbestos claims against manufacturers posed an
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In Santiago[1] v. Rich Products Corp., et al.[2], the Massachusetts Appeals Court held that a finding of spoliation requires both: (1) the negligent and intentional loss or destruction of evidence; and (2) the awareness of the spoliator at the time the evidence is lost or destroyed of the potential for the evidence to help resolve the dispute. The Santiago Court’s strict interpretation of the doctrine of spoliation follows the trend of Massachusetts litigation, shifting focus from the first element, the spoliator’s conduct to the second element, its mental state. The opinion also accentuates the fact that non-compliance with a document retention policy does not equate to per se spoliation.

The underlying dispute arose in 2006, when the plaintiff, Kelvin Santiago, then a 7-year-old first grader at Lowell public schools, experienced traumatic brain damage after choking on meatballs that were served to him during school lunch. The plaintiffs (Kelvin Santiago and his parents) sued the city of Lowell and the entity that produced and sold the meatballs, Rich Products, asserting negligence, breach of the implied warranty of merchantability, and Chapter 93A consumer protection claims, amongst others. Id. at 2. By way of background, in 2004, as part of the Federal government’s initiative to provide healthy lunches to students through the National School Lunch Program, Rich Products began providing and producing meatballs that met the healthy-lunch specification guidelines. To comply with standards promulgated by the United States Department of Agriculture, Rich Products used Profam 974, a soy protein isolate, to achieve the requisite “two ounces of protein per student [per lunch].” Santiago, No. 16-P-504 at 3. The plaintiffs’ counsel argued that the inclusion of Profam 974 rendered the product unreasonably dangerous, because the soy protein produced a meatball whose texture made it a choking hazard. Id. at 6

Upon enduring substantial discovery and motion hearings, in 2014, the Superior Court awarded the city of Lowell summary judgment, and a jury found that Rich Products was not responsible, on the basis that its negligence was not a “substantial contributing factor to the plaintiffs’ injuries.” Id. at 2-3. On appeal, the plaintiffs argued that the trial court erred by, among other things, denying the plaintiffs’ request for an adverse-inference instruction regarding Rich Products’ alleged spoliation of evidence. Id. On December 28, 2017, the Appeals Court “conclude[d] that the trial judge did not abuse his discretion in declining to give a spoliation instruction because the plaintiffs failed to establish the necessary factual predicate that Rich Products lost or destroyed the missing evidence when it knew or should have known of a potential lawsuit.” Id. (emphasis added).

Spoliation is the destruction of evidence, negligently or intentionally, when the litigant is aware or should be reasonably aware that the evidence is relevant to a potential action, whether or not the action has officially commenced. Id. at 7 (citing Mass. G. Evid. § 1102 (2017)). “The doctrine does not extend to a fault-free destruction or
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