Previously Dismissed Federal Maritime Case Against Ship Owners on Personal Jurisdiction Grounds Subsequently Dismissed in NYCAL; Court Finds There Was No Tolling of Statute of Limitations

In this NYCAL decision, it was alleged that the decedent, Eugene Quinlan, was exposed to asbestos and developed lung cancer from his work as a career merchant mariner. The case was originally filed in 1997 in the Northern District of Ohio for a non-malignant asbestos disease. The decedent subsequently developed lung cancer and the case was assigned to the MultiDistrict Litigation (MDL), which included the Maritime Docket cases (MARDOC), and laid dormant for seventeen years. In 2014, the case was assigned to the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, where the plaintiffs’ claims against numerous defendants including Marine Transport Lines, Inc. and Waterman Steamship Corp. were dismissed for lack of personal jurisdiction. (plaintiffs’ claims against several other defendants remained in the MDL).  In September 2014, the plaintiffs filed a new action in NYCAL against Marine, Waterman, and two other defendants. Marine and Waterman sought dismissal based on the expiration of the statute of limitations. The plaintiff sought equitable tolling of the statute of limitations against both defendants, alleging they mislead the Maritime Asbestos Legal Clinic, who was originally representing the decedent, into believing that they had waived personal jurisdiction objections and for federal court’s delay in deciding the jurisdictional issue. The plaintiffs also argue that they were deprived of the right to a decision on the merits in the transferee forum.

The court granted the defendants’ motions and dismissed the plaintiffs’ cases against both Marine and Waterman. In its ruling, the court provided a lengthy explanation as to how nothing could happen in a 1997 case until 2014, when the case was dismissed against Marine and Waterman. In the court’s decision it was noted: “This decision is about whether plaintiffs are entitled to an equitable toll of the statute of limitations under the circumstances, where Quinlan’s complaint was dismissed based on the lack of jurisdiction. The problem with plaintiffs’ arguments is that they ignore the prior actions and inactions of their counsel.” The court went on to state “While this court recognizes that the nature of asbestos litigation means that a large number of defendants may be sued in any one action, which might force a plaintiff to sue in multiple forums in order to obtain jurisdiction, the Maritime Asbestos Clinic ignored jurisdictional requirements for the sake of volume business.”

Regarding the plaintiffs argument on the defendants waiving personal jurisdiction, the court held: “While plaintiffs’ counsel certainly proffered evidence that reflected that many ship owners did in fact waive jurisdiction in favor of consolidated litigation in Ohio, it is shocking that the Maritime Asbestos Clinic did not obtain a written agreement memorializing this ‘understanding.’ It is even more outrageous to believe that an agreement existed for future cases. How defense counsel would have authority to agree to anything involving a future, unfiled action, is puzzling.  Additionally, while ship owners filed a Master Answer in 1995 in Ohio, it was because they were directed to do so by Judge Lambros and the Master Answer contained the defense of lack of jurisdiction. Plaintiffs’ counsels’ argument that they were misled or prevented from making a timely filing rings hollow.”

Read the Marine decision here.

Read the Waterman decision here.