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Plaintiff’s Motion for Partial Summary Judgment to Prevent Government Contractor Defense Granted

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Court: United States District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana

In the case of Matherne v. Huntington Ingalls Inc., plaintiffs moved for partial summary judgment regarding the Avondale Interests’ government contractor defense.

Plaintiff decedent Roseanna Matherne was diagnosed with mesothelioma, which she alleged resulted from secondhand exposure to asbestos via her husband’s work clothes that she laundered. Mrs. Matherne’s husband worked at Avondale Shipyard from 1965 to 1983. During his employment, Mr. Matherne worked on U.S. Coast Guard Cutters and Lykes, States, LASH, and LNG vessels, all of which were built with asbestos-containing materials for the United States government. Plaintiffs filed suit against defendants in Orleans Parish, and the case was subsequently removed to the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana.

Plaintiffs sought summary judgment to prevent defendant Huntington Ingalls Incorporated (hereinafter “Avondale”) and the alleged insurers of its executive officers from utilizing the government contractor defense to immunize Avondale from plaintiffs’ claims of failure to warn and failure to implement safety measures, which they claimed would have prevented Roseanna Matherne’s exposure to asbestos.

The government contractor defenses arise from two United States Supreme Court decisions, Boyle v. United Technologies Corp., 487 U.S. 500, 108 S. Ct. 2510, 101 L. Ed. 2d 442 (1988) and Yearsley v. W. A. Ross Constr. Co., 309 U.S. 18, 60 S. Ct. 413, 84 L. Ed. 554 (1940). In Boyle, the court provided immunity from state law tort claims for certain government contractors for product design defects when “(1) the United States approved reasonably precise specifications; (2) the equipment conformed to those specifications; and (3) the supplier warned the United States about the dangers in the use of the equipment that were known to the supplier but not to the United States.” This defense ultimately protects the U.S. government from the financial burden of liability judgments against government contractors. Similarly, the defense created by Yearsley shields government contractors whose work was (1) authorized and directed by the government of the United States and (2) performed pursuant to an Act of Congress. The court stated that there is no ground for holding government agents acting under validly conferred authority liable so long as their actions do not exceed such authority.

In the case at bar, the plaintiffs argued that their motion conformed to motions previously granted by the Eastern District of Louisiana in such instances as Broussard v. Huntington Ingalls, Inc., No. 20-836, 2021 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 225247, 2021 WL 5448795 (E.D. La. Nov. 22, 2021) and Falgout v. Anco Insulations, Inc., No. 21-1443, 2022 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 187097, 2022 WL 7540115 (E.D. La. Oct. 13, 2022). In Falgout, the Eastern District of Louisiana evaluated the government contractor defense in the context of failure to warn and make safe claims for asbestos injuries and ultimately granted the plaintiffs’ partial summary judgment motion to prevent the defendant from using the government contractor defenses. The defendant argued that “as long as the government exercised discretion regarding warnings and protocols in connection to the performance of government contracts, that exercise of discretion is sufficient to bring a failure to warn claim within the scope of a Boyle defense. The Falgout court, however, stated that the defendant’s argument misstated the Boyle requirement and that the Fifth Circuit held that, for a defendant to avail itself of the Boyle defense for a failure to warn claim, they must provide evidence of a government decision on the specific issue of a warning, and that the party raising the defense carries the burden of demonstrating the existence of a government specification requiring the defendant to provide or not provide warnings to its employees regarding asbestos. 

Additionally, the Falgout court evaluated the Boyle defense in the context of failure to prevent the spread of asbestos claims. The court stated that the first element of the defense for a failure to prevent the spread of asbestos claim requires the government to exercise discretion in approving reasonably precise specifications for preventing the spread of asbestos. The defendant in Falgout argued that its government contracts provided reasonably precise specifications because the contracts incorporated the Walsh Healey Act and Department of Labor Safety and Health Regulations, which it claimed “render[ed] safe” its asbestospractices. Additionally, it asserted that the government exercised its discretion by “not including additional safety measures that Plaintiffs demand” and the government’s decision to continue awarding contracts to the defendant. In light of Fifth Circuit precedent requiring more than minimum safety and health standards to meet the reasonably precise specification requirement under Boyle, the court found the defendant’s examples of government discretion unpersuasive. Thus, the court held that the defendant did not meet the criteria under Boyle.

Furthermore, the Falgout plaintiff argued that the defendant was not entitled to a defense under Yearsley because it negligently carried out government contracts requiring using asbestos. The court found that the defendant’s warnings, storage, and safety policies regarding asbestos were acts separate from the act that the government authorized, which was the use of asbestos in building government ships for the U.S. military, and thus, derivative sovereign immunity under Yearsley did not shield the defendant.

Defendants argued that the plaintiffs’ claims in this case differed from those in Falgout because they sought to impose liability on the contractor for executing the government’s will. Conversely, plaintiffs asserted they were entitled only to summary judgment for the claims regarding failing to warn and enact safety measures on which they argued the Court had repeatedly ruled, thus equating to stare decisis. The court held that, as the opposition presented by the defendants did not differ from that which the court previously addressed in Falgout, no new or compelling reasons existed to deny summary judgment. As such, the plaintiffs’ motion was granted. 

Read the full decision here.