U.S. District Court for the District of Delaware, July 1, 2021
Plaintiffs Rickey Thorne and Barbara J. Thorne initiated this action in the U.S. District Court for the District of Delaware on the basis of diversity jurisdiction. The plaintiffs allege exposure to asbestos and products containing asbestos during the plaintiff’s service in the United States Air Force which caused his mesothelioma. The plaintiff was stationed at Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota where he maintained gas appliances, including stoves, hot water heaters, and furnaces, by performing tasks that included calibrating thermostats and maintaining pumps and pneumatic valves. The plaintiff also worked for a John Deere plant in Waterloo, Iowa, where he performed maintenance on valves and control equipment.
The parties submitted a joint status letter notifying the court of their dispute concerning the applicable substantive law. The defendants argued Iowa law should apply to this case. The plaintiffs countered that North Dakota law should apply.
In analyzing whether Iowa or North Dakota law should apply, the court looked to conflict of laws rules. Delaware courts use a two-part test to determine which sovereign’s law to apply when there is a conflict: first, the court determines whether there is an actual conflict of law between the proposed jurisdictions. If a conflict exists, the court applies the law of the state which, with respect to that issue, has the most significant relationship to the occurrence and the parties under the principles stated in Section 6 of the restatement.
The court recognized the parties do not dispute the existence of an actual conflict between the laws of Iowa and North Dakota. Under Iowa law, a defendant in an asbestos action or silica action shall not be liable for exposures from a product or component part made or sold by a third party. The plaintiffs asserted that application of North Dakota law yielded a different result and the defendants could remain liable for third-party asbestos-containing components utilized with the defendants’ products. Noting this conflict, the court proceeded to analyze whether Iowa or North Dakota had the most significant relationship to the occurrence and the parties.
In determining the place where the injury occurred, the court concluded the Delaware Supreme Court would apply the manifestation approach to determine the place where the injury occurred. Under the manifestation approach, the place of injury is the state where the slow-developing disease is first ascertainable. Based on this, the court determined the plaintiff was diagnosed with mesothelioma in Iowa, making Iowa the place of injury. The court noted this factor favored the application of Iowa law.
The court next looked to the place where the conduct causing the injury occurred and concluded this factor favored the application of North Dakota law because the plaintiffs’ allegations of asbestos exposure in the complaint are limited to North Dakota. In analyzing the domicile, residence, nationality, place of incorporation, and place of business of the parties, the court found this factor favored the application of Iowa law because the plaintiff was born in Iowa and did not reside anywhere other than Iowa when he was diagnosed with mesothelioma by doctors in Iowa.
Next, the court looked to the place where the relationship between the parties is centered. The court concluded the place of injury in this matter is Iowa, where the plaintiff’s mesothelioma manifested. The court also noted the plaintiffs failed to establish that the parties’ relationship was centered in North Dakota simply by virtue of the fact that the plaintiff used the defendants’ products in North Dakota. As such, the court found this factor neutral.
The court then performed an interest analysis where the court evaluated the contacts according to their relative importance with respect to the particular issue. However, the place of injury contact is often determinative because there is a rebuttable presumption that the law of the place where the injury occurred should govern related personal injury litigation. The plaintiffs argued the place of injury should not be considered determinative in this case because the plaintiff’s contact with Iowa was fortuitous. The court did not find this argument persuasive, and noted that the plaintiffs have long resided in Iowa and the plaintiff was diagnosed with and treated for mesothelioma in Iowa.
The court also found the relevant policies of the forum and the needs of the interstate and international systems were neutral in this case. The court concluded the parties had not sufficiently argued any interest that could overcome the presumption in favor of applying the law of the place of injuries, which the parties did not dispute was Iowa under the manifestation approach. Therefore, considering the principles of Section 6 of the restatement, the court held Iowa law should apply to this case.