Case Remanded as Res Judicata Bars Plaintiffs’ Survival Action

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LOUISIANA – In 1982, Gistarve Joseph, Sr. filed suit against Avondale Industries, Inc., its executive officers, and their insurers seeking damages for occupational exposure to asbestos during his employment with Avondale between 1969 and 1982. He alleged that his exposure caused him to contract pneumoconiosis. In November 1985, Joseph settled his claims against Avondale executing a Restrictive Release and Discharge with Indemnification Agreement, which released Avondale, its executive officers, and their insurers:

“from any and all liability, claims, demands, liens, remedies, debts, rights, actions and causes of action of whatever kind or nature which he now has or may hereafter acquire for any damages whatsoever, … directly or indirectly sustained or suffered by claimant on account of, or in any way growing out of occupational lung diseases of any and every kind and description, … and any and all other personal injury claims arising out of claimant’s employment at Avondale ….”

In June 2016, Joseph filed this lawsuit against Huntington Ingalls Inc. (formerly Avondale) alleging he contracted mesothelioma as a result of occupational exposure to asbestos between 1970 and 1982. Joseph died on July 27, 2016 and his adult children substituted themselves as plaintiffs and asserted wrongful death and survival actions.

The defendant, Huntington, filed an exception of res judicata, arguing the 1985 release barred plaintiffs’ survival action. The district court denied the exception, and the court of appeal denied Huntington’s application for supervisory writs. This court granted writs to examine the preclusive effect of the 1985 release. The issue currently before the court is whether, pursuant to the doctrine of res judicata, the release executed by Joseph in 1985 in settlement of all future claims for occupational lung disease bars plaintiffs’ survival action, which is based on the Joseph’s subsequent contraction of mesothelioma.

The court noted that pursuant to La. R.S. 13:4231, three elements must be satisfied to sustain a plea of res judicata: (1) an identity of parties, (2) an identity of cause, and (3) an identity of the thing demanded. Turning to the first point, the court ruled that this element is satisfied because the plaintiffs are the legal successors of Joseph within the intent of the law, and there exists an identity of parties for purposes of res judicata. Turning to the second and third points, the court carefully examined the details of the signed release and noted that it is clear that the plaintiffs’ survival action stems from the same juridical or material facts as Joseph’s first lawsuit. The release was meant to compensate Joseph for both past and future damages stemming from that past injury as mesothelioma is an occupational lung disease.

The court ultimately ruled that the release is entitled to preclusive effect. The judgment of the district court was reversed, and the exception of res judicata is sustained with respect to the plaintiffs’ survival action. The case was remanded to the district court for further proceedings.

Chief Justice Johnson dissented with the court’s majority opinion as he found that the release did not indicate the parties intended to settle a future claim for mesothelioma. He believes mesothelioma is not a progression or worsening of other occupational lung diseases such as asbestosis or pneumoconiosis.

Read the court’s opinion and Chief Justice Johnson’s dissent here.