Children’s Wrongful Death Claim Not Barred by Parents’ Settlement Release Agreement

U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana, September 28, 2020

Plaintiffs Dorothy and CJ Mayfield filed an asbestos personal-injury lawsuit in Louisiana state court in April 2015, alleging Mr. Mayfield developed lung cancer as a result of his exposure to asbestos-containing products, including those manufactured by CertainTeed. Mr. and Mrs. Mayfield settled their claims with Certainteed in February 2016, and executed a release that contained the following indemnity clause:

In further consideration of the above-described payment, Releasors [CJ Mayfield and Dorothy Mayfield] agree, individually and jointly, to indemnify, hold harmless, and defend Releasee(s) [including CertainTeed Corporation and its successors] from and against and any all claims, demands, causes of action, lawsuits (including the lawsuit identified above) and/or judgments for contribution or indemnity which are or may be related to, or may result from or arise out of, any injuries or losses sustained by CJ Mayfield or Releasors because of CJ Mayfield’s inhalation or ingestion of, contact with, exposure to or use of…asbestos-containing products…manufactured, distributed…sold or marketed by the Releasee(s)…

Mr. Mayfield passed away nine months after the settlement in November 2016, and in May 2017, CertainTeed was served with an amended complaint in which Mr. Mayfield’s surviving adult children sought wrongful death damages. Mrs. Mayfield also asserted a wrongful death claim against various defendants in the amended complaint, but not against CertainTeed. Upon receipt of the amended complaint, CertainTeed served Mrs. Mayfield a written demand for indemnification and payment, relying on the terms of the release, and specifically the indemnity clause recited above. Mrs. Mayfield failed to respond, and CertainTeed filed a complaint for a declaratory judgment, and then a motion for summary judgment, arguing that by signing the release in February 2016, the Mayfield’s agreed to indemnify CertainTeed for any and all future claims brought against it that relate to or may arise out of Mr. Mayfield’s exposure to asbestos, which would include the children’s wrongful death claims.

Mrs. Mayfield field a motion to dismiss CertainTeed’s complaint for a declaratory judgment, arguing that it failed to state a claim upon which relief could be granted because the indemnity clause, on its face, did not apply to subsequent wrongful death claims filed by the Mayfield children.

In support of its motion for summary judgment, and in opposition to Mrs. Mayfield’s motion to dismiss, CertainTeed argued that the indemnification clause applied to the Mayfield children, because the wrongful death suit was filed as a supplemental petition in the same docket number as the original personal injury case, and therefore “as a matter of law related to, results from, and arises out of Mr. Mayfield’s exposure to asbestos from products manufactured, sold, or distributed by CertainTeed.” In opposition, Mrs. Mayfield argued that the plain language of the Release provided that she and Mr. Mayfield would indemnify and hold harmless CertainTeed for injuries or losses sustained by them, but they did not agree to indemnify and hold harmless CertainTeed for injuries to others, such as their children. Additionally, no other parties were signatories on the release. Mrs. Mayfield argued that the children’s wrongful death claims do not compensate for injuries sustained by her or Mr. Mayfield, but rather were to compensate the children for their own claims of injuries from their father’s death.

Applying Louisiana contract law, the court noted that indemnity agreements are strictly construed and the party seeking to enforce the agreement bears the burden of proving the existence and applicability of same. Additionally, the intention to indemnify must be expressed in unequivocal terms. The court also discussed the basic distinction between a plaintiff’s personal injury action and his or her beneficiaries’ wrongful death action, as legally separate and distinct causes of action. The court found that neither party had offered any evidence of their intent when executing the release. However, Mrs. Mayfield asserted that at the time that she and Mr. Mayfield signed the release, no wrongful death action had been contemplated. CertainTeed offered no evidence to rebut that assertion.

The court found that it was not clear whether the phrase “any and all claims…which…arise out of, any injuries or losses sustained by CJ Mayfield or Releasors because of CJ Mayfield’s…exposure to…asbestos fibers” included wrongful death claims filed by the Mayfield’s’ adult children, who were not parties to the Release agreement. Given this equivocal language, and Louisiana law, which required that indemnity contracts be strictly construed, the court held that CertainTeed failed to prove that the indemnity clause would apply to later wrongful death claims, and as such, CertainTeed’s motion for summary judgment should be denied.

The court further held that Mrs. Mayfield’s motion for summary judgment on the declaratory judgment claim should be granted, as she had established that the indemnity clause did not contemplate or describe indemnity for future wrongful death claims brought by the Mayfield children.