Delaware District Court Rules on Pre-trial Motions in Maritime Law Case

DELAWARE – The plaintiff filed this asbestos-related wrongful death action in Delaware on June 11, 2015. While the court does not explain the underlying case facts, motion practice regarding admiralty law and expert exclusion indicates that the decedent was exposed to asbestos while a member of the United States Navy. As trial is approaching for this case, the plaintiff and the defendant, John Crane, Inc. (JCI), both filed motions in limine. The plaintiff’s motion sought to exclude discussion or reference to collateral sources, including social security and pensions, life insurance proceeds, claims or awards of disability benefits by any federal, state, or other governmental agency, services furnished without charge, benefits from hospitalization, medical or other collateral insurance coverage and other settlements related to this action under the collateral source rule. While the first four categories were granted as moot, the last two categories were denied. With regard to the “benefits from hospitalization, medical or other collateral insurance coverage,” JCI contended the benefits were largely paid by Medicare and thus not excluded under the collateral source rule. The court found that since the collateral source rule does not apply to Medicare write-offs, and the plaintiff did not specify whether the evidence of benefits from hospitals, etc. included Medicare write-offs, those documents are not excluded. Likewise, the exclusion of previous or other settlements in this case are not excluded since the Delaware code provides that a claim against a joint tortfeasor may be reduced by amounts paid by other joint tortfeasors.  Accordingly, “evidence of previous settlements with joint tortfeasors is necessary to determine the amount by which the plaintiff’s claim against JCI should be reduced.”

JCI filed three motions in limine. The first motion sought to exclude as irrelevant corporate documents or statements of JCI and materials related to state-of-the-art asbestos which post-dated the decedent’s last alleged exposure to a JCI product. The plaintiff argued, and the court agreed, that such documents may be relevant and admissible to establish causation, for impeachment purposes, to show the feasibility of precautionary measures and to show JCI’s intentional disregard of the dangers of asbestos. This motion was denied without prejudice; in the event that JCI identifies specific documents during trial, the motion can be renewed.

JCI’s second and third motions sought to exclude evidence of survival damages and wrongful death non-pecuniary damages due to the decedent’s exposure at sea. JCI argued under the Death on the High Seas Act (DOHSA)[i],  that the plaintiff cannot simultaneously claim wrongful death damages and survival damages. According to JCI, since the decedent suffered an “indivisible” injury on the high seas, in foreign ports and in U.S. territorial waters, the cumulative exposure to asbestos must be analyzed exclusively under DOHSA. The court held that indivisible injuries have been distinguished in the case law and concluded general maritime law–not DOHSA–applies to survival claims arising from an indivisible injury. Further, a court may rely on state laws to “fill gaps” in general maritime law. Accordingly, the court here relied on Delaware state survival statute, holding damages for pain and suffering and punitive damages are recoverable. Further, the court found the wrongful death claim falls under DOHSA, which the plaintiff conceded only covers pecuniary damages. Therefore, the portion of JCI’s motion seeking to exclude evidence of wrongful death non-pecuniary damages was granted.

JCI’s request to bifurcate the trial was denied. The court found that bifurcation would not expedite the process, would be less convenient, and would require additional resources and time to be expended.

Finally, JCI objected to the court’s memorandum opinion finding that the plaintiff’s expert, Captain Moore, qualified to testify. The Third Circuit has explained, there are three requirements under Rule 702:

  1. The proffered witness must be an expert, i.e., must be qualified
  2. The expert must testify about matters requiring scientific, technical or specialized knowledge. The expert’s testimony must assist the trier of fact.

JCI challenged the first requirement and argued that since Captain Moore had no experience on the purchase and procurement of products for the Navy, that he is not qualified in that area and that he should not be allowed to testify as an expert regarding same. The court denied JCI’s motion, stating an expert does not need “practical experience in a given industry in order to qualify as an expert in litigation involving its products.”

[i] 46 U.S.C. §§ 30301-08 (D.I. 295 at 2-4)

Read the case decision here.