Superior Court of Rhode Island, Providence, July 22, 2022
In this asbestos-related lawsuit, the plaintiffs allege that the decedent, Ann Stadtler, developed mesothelioma and died due to take-home exposure to asbestos from her stepfather, Charles Ferguson, with whom she lived from 1948 to 1965. During this time, as part of his employment as a union insulator, Ferguson worked at several different power stations in the New England area.
On November 6, 2019, the plaintiffs served defendant Westinghouse with interrogatories and requests for production of documents related to Westinghouse equipment at power stations where Ferguson worked. The plaintiffs also requested all documents in Westinghouse’s possession related to products sold or distributed to the named power stations prior to 1966. In its initial response of December 19, 2019, Westinghouse stated that it manufactured and sold turbines for use at a number of different power stations. On July 16, 2020, Westinghouse served the plaintiffs with a supplemental response stating that it intended only to “produce documents relative to the turbines at the Narragansett Electric Stations, where Charles Ferguson testified he worked on turbines[.]” Westinghouse only produced the requested documents with respect to the two Narragansett Stations and did not agree to produce the remaining power station documents. Thereafter, Westinghouse moved for summary judgment.
The plaintiffs then filed a motion to compel discovery, asking the court to prohibit Westinghouse from moving for summary judgment or dismissal until it had produced the relevant documents and properly responded to the plaintiffs’ discovery requests. Conversely, Westinghouse asked that the court deny the plaintiffs’ motion to compel and then proceed to hear and grant its motion for summary judgment.
“‘The provisions of the Superior Court Rules of Civil Procedure pertaining to discovery generally are liberal, and are designed to promote broad discovery among parties during the pretrial phase of litigation.'” DeCurtis v. Visconti, Boren & Campbell, Ltd., 152 A.3d 413, 420 (R.I. 2017) (quoting Henderson v. Newport County Regional Young Men’s Christian Association, 966 A.2d 1242, 1246 (R.I. 2009)). Pursuant to Rule 26(b) of the Superior Court Rules of Civil Procedure, “Parties may obtain discovery regarding any matter, not privileged, which is relevant to the subject matter involved in the pending action, whether it relates to the claim or defense of the party seeking discovery or to the claim or defense of any other party, including the existence, description, nature, custody, condition and location of any documents, electronically stored information or tangible things and the identity and location of persons having knowledge of any discoverable matter. It is not ground for objection that the information sought will be inadmissible at the trial if the information sought appears reasonably calculated to lead to the discovery of admissible evidence.” Super. R. Civ. P. 26(b)(1).
Under Rule 34 of the Superior Court Rules of Civil Procedure, a party “may serve on any other party a request within the scope of Rule 26(b)” to produce documents or electronically stored information “in the responding party’s possession, custody or control[.]” Super. R. Civ. P. 34(a). Under Rule 37 of the Superior Court Rules of Civil Procedure, if the responding party fails to produce the designated documents as requested, “the discovering party may move for an order compelling … production or inspection in accordance with the request.” Super. R. Civ. P. 37(a)(2).
The plaintiffs argued that the requested documents were directly related to their prima facie case against Westinghouse because Westinghouse admitted that its products were present at the power stations where Ferguson worked. The plaintiffs also argued that the requested documents would likely reveal information about the larger context of the power stations’ operations during the period in question, which could be relevant to the plaintiffs’ claims against utilities, vendors, and other product manufacturers in the case.
Westinghouse objected and asserted that the requested documents would not lead to the discovery of admissible evidence. Westinghouse argued Ferguson’s testimony did not indicate that he was present at any of the other named power stations at a time when the asbestos insulation on a Westinghouse turbine was being applied, removed, or otherwise disturbed.
Notwithstanding, the court granted the plaintiffs’ motion to compel discovery, finding that the nature and extent of Ferguson’s alleged occupational exposures to asbestos constituted a central issue in this suit. Additionally, discovery in this case showed that Westinghouse steam turbine generator units—and six of the 33 mechanical drive steam turbines—at the Narragansett Stations contained asbestos insulation. Furthermore, the court found that the documents relating to the asbestos-containing products present at Ferguson’s jobsites were plainly “relevant to the subject matter involved in the pending action[.]” Super. R. Civ. P. 26(b)(1). Accordingly, the plaintiffs’ motion was granted.
Read the full decision here