In a victory for Massachusetts premises owners and their insurers, the Massachusetts Superior Court recently dismissed all claims against a group of twenty-three premises owners whom the Plaintiff alleged were liable (under both strict liability and negligence theories) for the development of the decedent’s asbestos-related mesothelioma. The Court denied claims of both strict liability and negligence against premises owners that either currently owned or are now the successor-in-interest to various worksites in eastern Massachusetts, including prominent hospitals, universities, and office buildings.
In Flynn v. A.W. Chesterton Co., (Massachusetts Superior Court, Middlesex, Civil Action 2011-3000), Massachusetts Superior Court Justice Charles J. Hely granted a joint motion of the twenty-three premises owners to dismiss all claims against them. This may have come as a surprise to the premises owners and their insurers, as just a few weeks earlier, Judge Hely, notwithstanding their opposition, granted the Plaintiff leave in order to add the premises owners as defendants in an amended complaint. The oppositions served by premises owners to the Plaintiff’s motion for leave to amend the complaint mirrored many of the same arguments again presented to the Court in their joint motion to dismiss, in particular, that strict liability and negligence were not adequately pleaded in the amended complaint, and that by definition, both allegations were inapplicable to premises owners under the circumstances.
The Court, citing the requirements for pleadings under Iannacchino v. Ford Motor Co. 451 Mass. 623 (2008) found that the Plaintiff had not alleged sufficient facts in the amended complaint for a determination on whether strict liability principles are applicable to the activities the premises owners were engaged in at the time of the decedent’s exposure to asbestos. “The complaint fails” the Court stated, “to adequately put the [premises owner] defendants on notice of the particular conduct by the [premises owner] defendants that would warrant application of a strict liability standard.” The Court noted that the amended complaint did not present any individualized fact allegations against any of the premises owners, i.e., a date, a year, a length of time, or an exact location pertaining to the decedent’s alleged exposure to asbestos at a location connected to a particular premises owner. The Court concluded that the plaintiff’s “conclusory fact allegations” were not enough to raise a strict liability right to relief “above the speculative level.” For the same reasons (lack of specific facts about each premises owner’s alleged negligent conduct), the Court also found the negligence count of the amended complaint insufficient to meet the Iannacchino standard.
The impact of this decision will likely be discovered sooner rather than later, as the plaintiff’s bar continues to attempt to bring new categories of defendants into the litigation, often with minimal or extremely attenuated connections to asbestos. The decision further supports the prevailing view in Massachusetts that strict liability is rarely applicable to defendants mired in the asbestos litigation. Plaintiff’s counsel will need to take this ruling into consideration and make every effort to plead specific facts in their complaints in order to survive an inevitable motion to dismiss from new categories of defendants. We will continue to monitor this and other developments in the asbestos litigation.