Personal Jurisdiction Defense Waived in Maritime Multidistrict Litigation U.S. Court of Appeals, Third Circuit, December 28, 2017

Appellants George Perdreauville and Joseph Blue, along with thousands of other seamen, initially filed lawsuits in the late 1980s in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio under the Jones Act, 46 U.S.C. Section 304 et seq., and general maritime law, alleging injury from exposure to asbestos while onboard the Appellees’ various ships. A lengthy and complex procedural course ensued, and, in 1991, the suits were consolidated in the Asbestos Multidistrict Litigation (MDL) in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. In 2014, that court dismissed the appellants’ cases due to lack of personal jurisdiction. The appellants subsequently filed a timely joint appeal, arguing, inter alia, that the appellees had waived their personal jurisdiction defenses.

This case directly parallels a 2016 decision from the Third Circuit, Braun, and both parties agreed that the court previously addressed the question of whether the ship-owner appellees waived their personal jurisdiction defenses. In the instant matter, the ship-owner appellees urged the court to depart from Braun, contending that the panel “paid only lip service” to the abuse of discretion standard by failing to identif[y] how Judge Robreno’s finding of fact were clearly erroneous so as to constitute an abuse of discretion.” The ship-owner appellees further contended that Braun not only “substitute[ed] its own factual conclusions for those of the MDL court,” but also drew “illogical and erroneous” conclusions from those facts.

The court in Braun, in overturning the District Court’s decision, determined three reasons why Appellants’ waived their personal jurisdiction defenses. First, the court explained that waiver occurred when counsel for the Braun defendants consented to proceed with “these cases” in the Northern District of Ohio because that statement “clearly referred to the clusters of cases that Chief Judge Lambros intended to transfer to the Eastern District of Michigan.” In other words, when counsel for the Braun defendants acknowledged that they had consented to jurisdiction in the Northern District of Ohio, they did so in reference to the cases that were at risk of being transferred by Chief Judge Lambros to Michigan. The court therefore concluded that counsel’s consent to proceed with litigation in Ohio amounted to a “clear waiver of the personal jurisdiction defense.”

Second, the court held that Judge Robreno’s interpretation of the hearing transcript — i.e., his assessment that defense counsel’s reference to “these cases” was limited to the sixteen cases set for trial in the Northern District of Ohio — was belied by the record. In fact, Chief Judge Lambros never suggested that the remaining sixteen cases from the first cluster were at risk of being transferred to Michigan; to the contrary, it was decided on the record that all sixteen cases would be tried to the same Ohio jury that heard the first four cases from that cluster.

Third, the court stated in Braun that the defendants’ post-transfer filings further confirmed that they had waived their personal jurisdiction defenses because, in those filings, they specifically requested that the cases be transferred from the Eastern District of Michigan to Ohio. Ultimately, the court reversed Judge Robreno’s decision and vacated the order dismissing Appellants’ cases due to lack of personal jurisdiction.

The court applied Braun and found its reasoning and conclusion guided the instant matter. The claims brought by Appellants, like those filed by the Braun, were among those at risk from being transferred from Ohio to Michigan in January of 1991. The ship-owner appellees, in turn, were represented by the same attorney who consented at the January 8, 1991 hearing to jurisdiction in the Northern District of Ohio; the acknowledgement was a clear waiver of the ship-owner appellees lack of personal jurisdiction defenses. Taken together, these facts establish that the ship-owner Appellees here — like those in Braun — indeed waived their lack of personal jurisdiction defenses with regard to the appellants’ cases. Second, the ship-owner appellees’ post-transfer filings confirm that they, like their counterparts in Braun, equally waived their personal jurisdiction defenses with respect to the appellants.

The court vacated the order dismissing appellants’ cases for lack of personal jurisdiction, and remanded for further proceedings consistent with the opinion.

Read the full decision here.

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