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.

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 that controls the contents of the label on a generic drug owes a duty to consumers of that generic drug not to act in reckless disregard of an unreasonable risk of death or grave bodily injury.”[19]  As an added protection to the manufacturers, it will be the trial judge’s responsibility to determine whether an injury constitutes an “unreasonable risk of death or grave bodily injuries.”[20]  The court went on to define recklessness as an act performed while knowing or having reason to know of facts which would lead a reasonable person to realize that his or her conduct creates an unreasonable risk of physical harm to another and that such risk is substantially greater than that which is necessary to make his conduct negligent.[21] In order to meet this threshold with regard to failure to act, there must be “an intentional or unreasonable disregard of a risk that presents a high degree of probability that substantial harm will result.”[22]

 

The court then vacated the dismissals and remanded the case to Superior Court where the plaintiff would be granted leave to amend his complaint should he believe his claims meet the newfound threshold.[23]

 

National Scope

 

In August of 2017, the United States District Court – District of Massachusetts held in In re Zofran[24] that a brand-name manufacturer is not liable for a generic version’s failure to warn claim spawning from an injury caused by the use of the generic.[25]  Judge Dennis F. Saylor IV articulated this point by emphasizing the consistency of the Circuit Courts’ decisions and citing to a Sixth Circuit multi-district litigation holding “affirming the dismissal of claims against brand-name manufacturers under the laws of 22 states.”[26]  Notwithstanding this majority view, in December of 2017, the Supreme Court of California held that a brand-manufacturer is liable for a failure to warn claim arising from “risks about which it knew of reasonably should have known, regardless of whether the consumer is prescribed the brand-name drug or its generic ‘bioequivalent.’”[27]  Here, the SJC has offered a compromise to the majority and minority viewpoints by adopting a recklessness standard, which is a higher threshold than the minority view, while still maintaining failure to warn liability against the brand-name manufacturer, in contrast with the majority.

 

The court’s concern that redress be available to those who ingest generic drugs by establishing liability to the controlling brand-name manufacturer carried the day.  Our hope is that innovators will continue to advance modern pharmaceutical products despite their increased potential for liability. We will be watching this space for further developments.

 

 

[1] In re Zofran (Ondansetron) Products Liability Litigation, 261 F.Supp.3d 62 (D. Mass. 2017) (citing In re Darvocet, Darvon, and Propoxyphene Products Liability Litigation, 756 F.3d 917, 938-939 (6th Cir. 2014)).

[2] 407 P.3d 18, 29 (Cal. 2017).

[3] Id. at 47.

[4] Rafferty v. Merck & Co., Inc. & Sidney Rubenstein, No. SJC–12347 (Mass. Mar. 16, 2018).

[5] Id. at 2-3.

[6]Rafferty v. Merck & Co., Inc., No. SJC–12347 at 3-4. The statutory and regulatory constructs pertaining to drug labeling are quite complicated.  Relevant to the matter considered by the SJC, the Drug Price Competition and Patent Term Restoration Act, informally known as the “Hatch-Waxman Act” requires the “manufacturer of a generic drug [to] provide its users with a warning label that is identical to the label of the brand-name counterpart.”  Id. at 4.  In accordance with the “federal duty of ‘sameness’” the two opportunities to alter a generic manufacturers preexisting warning are to: (1) update their label in response to their brand-name counterpart’s update; and (2) per specific FDA instruction. Id. at 6-7 (citing PLIVA, Inc. v. Mensing, 564 U.S. 604, 613-616 (2011)).  These federal laws makes it almost impossible for generic manufacturers to follow Massachusetts labeling laws because they do not have the unilateral power to act. See id.

[7] Rafferty v. Merck & Co., Inc., No. SJC–12347 at 8.

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

[10] Rafferty v. Merck & Co., Inc., No. SJC–12347 at 8-9.

[11] Rafferty v. Merck & Co., Inc., No. SJC–12347 at 9.

[12] Id. Plaintiff also asserted a G.L. c.93A § 9 Consumer Protection Act claim and a negligent failure to obtain informed consent action against his physician.

[13] Rafferty v. Merck & Co., Inc., No. SJC–12347 at 10; Rafferty v. Merck & Co., Inc. & Sidney Rubenstein, No. 2013–04459, 4 (Mass. Super. May 23, 2013) (emphasizing that because “Rafferty did not ingest the drug that Merck manufactured, Merck owes Rafferty no duty of care”).

[14] Rafferty v. Merck & Co., Inc., No. SJC–12347 at 11.

[15] See e.g. Mathers v. Midland-Ross Corp., 403 Mass. 688, 691 (Mass. 1989); Mitchell v. Sky Climber, Inc., 396 Mass. 629, 631 (Mass. 1986).

[16] Rafferty v. Merck & Co., Inc., No. SJC–12347 at 16.

[17] Rafferty v. Merck & Co., Inc., No. SJC–12347 at 17. This was especially so given generic products command approximately ninety percent of the market. Id.

[18] Rafferty v. Merck & Co., Inc., No. SJC–12347 at 20-22.

[19] Rafferty v. Merck & Co., Inc., No. SJC–12347 at 29.

[20] Rafferty v. Merck & Co., Inc., No. SJC–12347 at 30.

[21] See Rafferty v. Merck & Co., Inc., No. SJC–12347 at 29 (citing Boyd v. National R.R. Passenger Corp, 446 Mass. 540, 546 (Mass. 2006); Restatement (Second) of Torts, § 500, 587 (1965)).

[22] Rafferty v. Merck & Co., Inc., No. SJC–12347 at 30.

[23] Rafferty v. Merck & Co., Inc., No. SJC–12347 at 36. Additionally, Rafferty’s G.L. c. 93A § 9 claim was vacated because it did not satisfy the “any trade or commerce” provision, which requires that the unfair or deceptive practice is directly related to the advertising, selling, or trade of a Merck product.  Id. at 38.  Thus, because Rafferty used Finasteride, as opposed to Proscar, the claim is beyond the scope of G.L. c. 93A § 9.  Id. at 38-39

[24] 261 F.Supp.3d 62 (D. Mass. 2017). A multi-district litigation matter regarding side effects not purported within the label of Zofran and in-turn not purported on the label of the generic version, Ondansetron.

[25] In re Zofran, 261 F.Supp.3d at 64-65.

[26] In re Zofran, 261 F.Supp.3d at 71-72 (citing In re Darvocet, Darvon, and Propoxyphene Products Liability Litigation, 756 F.3d at 938-939.

[27] T.H. Novartis Pharm. Corp., 407 P.3d at 29 (citing Dolin v. SmithKline Beecham Corp., 62 F.Supp.3d 705 (N.D. Ill. 2014); Chatman v. Pfizer, Inc., 960 F.Supp.2d 641, 654 (S.D. Miss. 2013); Kellogg v. Wyeth, Inc., 762 F.Supp.2d 694, 704 (D. Vt. 2010); Wyeth, Inc. v. Weeks, 159 So.3d 649 (Ala. 2014)). See also Conte v. Wyeth, Inc., 168 Cal.App.4th 89 (Cal. Ct. App. 2008).

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 issue of first impression for the Court. GE argued that its generators were permanent improvements to the plant. Plaintiff disagreed, and further argued that public policy prevented the application of the statute to asbestos claims given their long latency.

 

Ultimately, the Court agreed with GE that the generators were permanent improvements, but found that public policy cut against the application of the statute of repose to GE’s benefit. Though the public policy behind statutes of repose is based on the policy judgment that a potential defendant should have no reasonable expectation of responsibility for injuries that occur after the passage of a number of years, the Court held that such a policy rationale does not apply to asbestos cases because: (1) the potential dangers associated with asbestos exposure were well known by 1971; and (2) the typical latency period from asbestos exposure to disease is much longer than the six-year window for filing personal injury claims under the statute of repose.  Accordingly, the Court found that an asbestos defendant should not have a reasonable expectation that an injury, if one should occur, would likely manifest itself within the six year statute of repose.

 

The Court further relied on what it called a “somewhat relaxed” burden of proof in asbestos cases, thereby minimizing the argument that evidence relied upon by the parties would become stale over the passage of time, another policy reason behind the application of statutes of repose. The Court also noted that GE’s responsibility was not typical of a manufacturer that releases its products to an end user without much retained control. In this case, GE directed the material selection and at least some of the work allegedly giving rise to the exposure.  In addition, GE continued to exercise some level of control for an extended period of time through on-site maintenance and inspections following completion of the project. On these grounds, the Court refused to bar Plaintiffs’ claims against GE on statute of repose grounds.

 

Although the decision purports to rely on a case-by-case factual approach to the application of the statute of repose, as evidenced by the Court’s statement that “although designers, engineers, and contractors like GE appear facially covered by the statute of repose, their protection is ultimately determined by reference to underlying acts.” the Court implicitly states that the statute of repose can never properly apply to asbestos claims, because such application would bestow upon asbestos defendants “absolute immunity” due to the typical latency period for asbestos-related diseases.

 

Strict Liability of Premises Owner

Plaintiff argued for the imposition of strict liability on Boston Edison based on the premise that the act of insulating equipment with asbestos-containing insulation amounted to an abnormally dangerous activity. Massachusetts imposes a balancing test on the application of strict liability in which the court evaluates: (a) whether an activity risks harm; (b) the magnitude of the harm; (c) whether the risk can be mitigated with reasonable care; (d) whether the activity is a common one; (e) whether the activity is appropriate where it is taking place; and (f) the activity’s value to the community. Here, the Court disagreed with Plaintiff’s argument and found that, despite the risk of significant harm posed by asbestos-containing insulation, the fact that asbestos insulation was commonly used during the time frame at issue, and the possibility of taking reasonable precautions to mitigate that harm weighed against the imposition of strict liability. Accordingly, the Court granted summary judgment in favor of Boston Edison on Plaintiffs’ strict liability claim. This decision suggests that, going forward, the Court will not be receptive to the blanket categorization that asbestos products are abnormally dangerous.

 

Negligence of Premises Owner

In addition, Plaintiffs argued that, to the extent Plaintiff’s employer, Bechtel, was negligent by exposing him to asbestos, Boston Edison bears vicarious responsibility. In Massachusetts, an employer of an independent contractor on their premises is not liable for harm caused by that independent contractor’s negligence, unless the employer retains control over performance of the work. Plaintiffs argued that Boston Edison’s authority to monitor the construction, coupled with the ability to shut down the project, rose to a sufficient level of control. The Court disagreed, and considered the right of inspection and the right to impose work stoppage insufficient levels of control to justify imposition of vicarious liability, and granted summary judgment. This decision supports the arguments of premises owners charged with responsibility for their independent contractors, and reaffirms the importance of clearly delineated responsibilities.

 

Plaintiffs further argue that, as premises owner, Boston Edison negligently failed to give Oliver’s employer a warning regarding the dangers of on-premises asbestos. Massachusetts landowners owe a duty of reasonable care to employees of independent contractors. However, courts distinguish pre-existing hazards with those created by the work the independent contractor undertakes to perform. With the latter, the independent contractor stands on equal footing with regard to the risk. The Court considered the insulation a case of the latter—where Boston Edison’s knowledge of the risks of asbestos was no greater than Bechtel’s, Boston Edison had no duty to warn, and therefore no liability, and granted summary judgment. This decision cuts against plaintiffs’ attempts to make premises owners the effective “insurers” for on-premises work, the nature of which subcontractors may be more or equally aware.

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 loss of physical evidence;’” however, the purpose of the doctrine is to force accountability of a “party who culpably destroys evidence,” while providing a remedy to the other party “where unfair prejudice results.” Santiago, No. 16-P-504 at 7 (quoting Scott v. Garfield, 454 Mass. 790, 798 (Mass. 2009)); Keene v. Brigham and Women’s Hosp., Inc., 439 Mass. 223, 234 (Mass. 2003)(quoting Kippenhan v. Chaulk Servs., Inc. 428 Mass. 124, 127 (Mass. 1998)); Mass. G. Evid. § 1102 (2017). The court applies the reasonable person standard to determine whether the loss of evidence constitutes spoliation, by asking “at the time of spoliation, [did the party realize] the possible importance of the evidence to the resolution of the potential dispute?” Santiago, No. 16-P-504 at 7 (citing Kippenhan at 127)(emphasis added). The party seeking sanctions has the burden of proving that the spoliating party had the requisite knowledge by “producing evidence sufficient to establish certain preliminary facts.” Id. at 7 (citing Scott at 799). Should the sanction seeking party provide enough evidence to determine spoliation has occurred, a judge has a myriad of options to remedy the situation, so long as the sanction addresses, “the precise unfairness that would otherwise result” in the least severe way necessary. Santiago, No. 16-P-504 at 9 (citing Westover v. Leiserv, Inc., 64 Mass. App. Ct. 109, 113 (Mass. App. Ct. 2005) (quoting Fletcher v. Dorchester Mut. Ins. Co., 437 Mass. 544, 550 (Mass. 2002))); Santiago, No. 16-P-504 at 9 (quoting Keene 439 Mass. at 235).

 

Regarding the allegations at issue, the plaintiffs’ counsel claimed that Rich Products engaged in sanctionable conduct with respect to their “(1) laboratory notebooks and production records from 2004 relating to the development of the formula for the meatballs and (2) the results of product-development and production testing from 2004.” Santiago, No. 16-P-504 at 5. The plaintiffs’ counsel said that this evidence would highlight to the jury the unreasonably dangerous texture that Profam 974 created within the meatballs. Id. at 6. The plaintiffs, however, were able to recreate meatballs using Rich Products’ recipe provided in answers to interrogatories, and obtained expert testimony that identified those meatballs as unreasonably dangerous, and opined that “both the size and texture of the meatball presented a choking risk to children.” Id. at 6. Moreover, while articulating the alleged dangers of the product, the plaintiffs’ counsel neglected to identify whether or not Rich Products “at the time of spoliation” knew or should have reasonably known “the potential importance of the evidence to the resolution of the potential dispute.” Id. at 7. Judge Shin reinforced the Superior Court’s position that simply pointing to a document retention policy does not equate to a culpable or negligent destruction of documents with knowledge that the documents could solve a potential dispute. Id. at 6. Because the plaintiffs’ counsel ultimately could not bear this burden of proving intentional or negligent acts with knowledge as to their significance, there was no actionable spoliation. Id. at 8 (citing Vigorito v. Ciulla Builders, Inc., 57 Mass. App. Ct. 446, 454-455 (Mass. App. Ct. 2003)). Nevertheless, the Superior Court Judge acted within his discretion to allow the plaintiffs’ counsel to “argue [] the lack of evidence,” which “allow[ed] [the plaintiff] to make use of the fact the documents were missing,” ultimately painting the picture for the jury at each juncture of the trial. Santiago, No. 16-P-504 at 8, 11.

 

Thus, the standard that Massachusetts courts demand for proving spoliation requires a showing of knowing action, or failure to act, before the court will punish a party for failing to preserve evidence. At the same time, if critical pieces of evidence are missing, Massachusetts have the authority to allow counsel an opportunity to present this point to the jury without the imposition of sanctions such as an adverse inference instruction.  Id. at 11

[1] Kelvin Santiago & Julia Rivera and Juan Santiago, individually and as next friends of Kelvin Santiago

[2] Kelvin Santiago & Others v. Rich Products Corp., Casa Di Bertacchi Corp., and the city of Lowell, No. 16-P-504 (Mass. App. Ct. Dec. 28, 2017)

 

 

In a recent decision, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) clarified the scope of personal liability for investors and board members under the Commonwealth’s Wage Act, as codified at G.L. c. 149, §§148-150.  The SJC held that investors and board members could not be held personally liable solely by virtue of their investment activity or acts performed in their official capacity as board members.  While the case involved a nuanced set of facts aptly described as “unusual and removed from the core concerns of the Wage Act,” its holding is nonetheless significant, and provides guidance for personal liability under the Wage Act for individuals other than a company’s president or treasurer.

In Segal v. Genitrix, LLC, 478 Mass. 551 (2017), H. Fisk Johnson and Stephen Rose, two former board members of Genitrix, LLC, sought direct appellate review of an adverse jury verdict that found them personally liable for failing to pay wages owed to the company’s former president and CEO, Andrew Segal.  Johnson, Rose, and Segal founded the biotech company, originally a Maryland LLC, in 1997.  Johnson briefly served as a board member during Genitrix’s opening year, but continued to invest in the company until its dissolution in 2007.  Johnson designated Rose as his appointee to the board and advised Segal that Rose was to be his contact for any financial matters.

As a condition to Johnson’s initial investment, he required Segal to execute an employment agreement with Genitrix.  The agreement stipulated that Segal would receive a fixed salary in consideration for his service as the company’s president and CEO, including managing the day-to-day financial and administrative affairs of the company.  Segal, the company’s sole officer, supervised the laboratory, managed all human resource functions, including payroll, and was the only individual authorized to issue wage checks.

The company began to experience financial difficulties in 2006, which led to Segal’s recommendation that the company lay off its at-will employees in order to meet payroll obligations.  In turn, the two defendants invested additional money in the company; however, they earmarked the investment for specific purposes such as funding payroll and replacing lab equipment.  The company’s financial condition worsened in 2007, and Segal unilaterally decided to stop taking his salary.  By mid-2007, the company was unable to make payroll and its board voted to lay off the other remaining employee.  The defendants made a final investment to pay off that employee’s remaining salary obligations and then shuttered the company’s doors.

The company ultimately filed a petition for judicial dissolution.  During those proceedings, Segal filed an array of claims against the company, and also attempted unsuccessfully to block the dissolution of Genitrix, a Delaware LLC.  See Fisk Ventures, LLC v. Segal, et al., C.A. No. 3017-CC (Del. Ch. Jan. 13, 2009).However, Segal did not assert a claim under the Massachusetts Wage Act.  Notably, Segal continued in his role as president while the dissolution proceedings were ongoing, despite continuing to decline a salary.  Segal’s belief that he eventually would get paid for the work did not come to fruition, and he filed a Wage Act claim in 2009.

The defendants were awarded summary judgment on the grounds that they did not “have the management” of the company, as required by the Wage Act.  That victory was fleeting, as the Massachusetts Appeals Court  reversed summary judgment on the grounds that a genuine issue of material fact existed as to whether the defendants managed the company.

On remand, the case went to trial, where the judge instructed the jury, in part, that “a person qualifies as an agent having the management of such corporation if he…controls, directs, and participates to a substantial degree in formulating and determining policy of the corporation.”  The jury went on to find both defendants personally liable based upon the given instruction.  The defendants then moved for direct appellate review on the grounds that there was insufficient evidence at trial to find personal liability, and that the above-referenced jury instruction was erroneous.

In a straightforward reading of the Wage Act, the SJC noted that the omission of investors and board members from the statute was significant.  Thus, the defendants could be personally liable only if they were deemed “agents having management of the company.”  This was the first time the SJC had been tasked with interpreting that language.

In doing so, the Court looked at whether the defendants were agents as a result of their board participation, and whether the restrictions placed on new investments constituted “management” activities.

Segal argued that the defendants exercised sufficient agency authority through their investment influence and board voting rights.  The SJC rejected this argument, and concluded that while “boards are regularly required to make difficult decisions that have an impact on the company’s finances,” such decisions are not acts of individual board members as “agents.”  The SJC also disagreed with Segal’s argument that placing conditions and other restrictions on incoming investments constituted management of the company.  On that point, the SJC held “[i]nvestment restrictions limited to the use of new monies are not management direction and control over existing resources,” and “exercising one’s rights and leverage over infusions of new money are separate and distinct from being an agent have the management of the corporation.”  The SJC also noted that as the only officer of Genitrix, Segal was “the only person expressly identified by virtue of his title as responsible for Wage Act violations,” and that Segal “made the decision not to pay himself.”

Segal is significant as it limits the circumstances in which a corporate director, board member or investor can be found individually liable under the Wage Act.  While personal liability for directors and investors is not entirely foreclosed, it cannot result solely on account of an individual’s position as board member or investor.  According to the SJC, the Wage Act continues to impose personal liability on those assuming individual responsibility as an officer or agent of a company, but it “does not impose individual liability on board members, acting as board members, or outside investors overseeing their investments.”  Given the rapidly expanding startup industry in Massachusetts, Segal provides some comfort that board members and investors will not face exposure to the draconian consequences of the Wage Act, provided that they do not participate in the management of a company to a greater extent than the defendants in Segal.