Turbine Manufacturer’s Choice of Law Motion Granted Based on Location of Asbestos Exposure and Diagnosis

MASSACHUSETTS — Plaintiff Ruth Burleigh, the widow of the plaintiff’s decedent Ernest Burleigh, filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts against numerous defendants alleging that decedent developed mesothelioma as a result of exposure to asbestos while working as a mechanic at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard (the shipyard) from 1960-1981. The shipyard is located in Kittery, Maine, approximately 20 miles from the Massachusetts border. The plaintiff’s decedent alleged exposure to asbestos in Maine only, was a resident of Maine for the entirety of his alleged exposure, and was diagnosed in Maine.

Defendant GE filed an answer to the original complaint, asserting that it “adopts the master cross claim (sic) against all defendants,” therefore they also asserted a crossclaim for contribution against codefendants as joint tortfeasors with regard to plaintiff’s damages. During the life of the litigation, multiple defendants settled, leaving three defendants remaining: GE, Crane Co. (“Crane”), and Warren Pumps, LLC (Warren). GE and the plaintiff stipulated to the fact that GE is a New York Corporation with a principal place of business in Massachusetts. GE designed and manufactured the turbines, and associated asbestos-containing gaskets, in Massachusetts, and shipped them to the shipyard in Maine.

GE filed a motion to apply Maine substantive law, which was joined by Crane and Warren. GE identified various conflicts between Maine and Massachusetts law, including caps on damages and the burden of proof in a wrongful death claim. The plaintiff argued that Massachusetts law should apply to any issues related to the wrongful death claim.

When jurisdiction is based on the federal officer removal statute, a federal court adheres to the forum state’s choice of law rules to determine the applicable substantive law. The court looked to the Restatement (Second) of Conflict of Laws, Section 6 for guidance, examining the following factors: 1. the place where the injury occurred; 2. The place where the conduct causing the injury occurred; 3. The domicile, residence, nationality, place of incorporation and place of business of the parties; and 4. The place where the relationship, if any, between the parties is centered.

The court determined that the contacts weighed heavily in favor of Maine. The court further held that “on balance, Massachusetts does not have a more significant relationship than Maine to the occurrence and the parties under the principles in section six with respect to the amount of non-economic compensatory and punitive wrongful death damages; the burden of proof in a wrongful death action; and the standard of conduct required to recover punitive damages in a wrongful death action.”

The plaintiff did not address or discuss the joint and several liability issues relative to contribution in their brief, and therefore waived any opposition to applying Maine law for that issue.

Ultimately, the court granted GE’s motion to apply Maine law.

Read the full decision here.