A multidistrict litigation (MDL) court in Pennsylvania has granted 418 motions to dismiss in asbestos-related litigation initiated in an Ohio federal court in the mid-1980s. In re Asbestos Prods. Liab. Litig. (No. VI), MDL No. 875 (U.S. Dist. Ct., E.D. Pa., decided August 26, 2013). According to the court, the Ohio court lacked personal jurisdiction over the defendants, maritime interests that either had no contact with the state or whose minimal contacts did not give rise to the plaintiffs’ purported injuries. The plaintiffs claimed that these defendants had waived the defense by filing answers to the complaints, but the Pennsylvania court found that they had done so not of their own volition and had preserved the defense by filing the answers under protest.
The court rendered its ruling after noting that the litigation had reached “Dickensian proportions. Plaintiffs have passed away; memories have faded; corporations have filed for bankruptcy; the legislature has enacted new laws; lawyers have come and gone, and so have judicial officers. . . . Now, some 25 years later, the Court, with the assistance of counsel, is called upon to divine the meaning of less-than-pellucid orders entered long ago by prior courts, and to disentangle the parties from a web of procedural knots that have thwarted the progress of this litigation.”
The original hearing to determine whether the Ohio court had jurisdiction over the 418 defendants was held in 1989. And while that court found personal jurisdiction lacking, it indicated that it would transfer the cases to jurisdictions where jurisdiction may lie rather than grant the motions to dismiss. Still, the court entered an order that appeared to grant the motions while transferring the cases to other courts. Because the court failed to identify which claims and defendants were transferred, or, if they were to be transferred, to which jurisdictions they were to be transferred, the cases remained in Ohio until transferred and consolidated in the MDL in 1991. In addition to finding that jurisdiction was lacking and that the defendants had not waived the defense, the MDL court refused the plaintiffs’ request that it transfer the cases to other jurisdictions, finding that it lacked the authority to do so under 28 U.S.C. § 1407(a).
The court rejected the motions to dismiss filed by 147 defendants claiming they had not been properly served. The court found that service was appropriate under applicable Ohio law and that it was bound by a 1987 ruling that the return receipt of the registered mail, which the plaintiffs’ had proffered as proof of actual notice, “would serve as proof of actual notice [to defendant].”