Court: United States District Court for the Western District of Washington
Plaintiff Jeffrey Cockrum alleged exposure to asbestos from his work as a laborer and laboratory technician at Alcoa Wenatchee Works, an aluminum smelting facility. The plaintiff was diagnosed with epithelioid mesothelioma in March 2022. In June 2022, he filed the instant lawsuit in King County Superior Court against seven defendants, including Howmet Aerospace, Alcoa’s corporate successor.
The plaintiff did not initially name a Washington defendant but later added North Coast Electrical Company, a Washington corporation. However, he did so without first seeking leave of court to file an amended complaint. Therefore, Howmet removed the case to the Western District of Washington based on diversity jurisdiction. After voluntarily dismissing the action, the plaintiff filed a new lawsuit in state court, which included North Coast as a defendant. Howmet removed the case for a second time, alleging that North Coast was a “sham defendant.” The plaintiff filed a motion to remand.
A case may be removed to federal court based on diversity of citizenship pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1332(a). “Although an action may be removed to federal court only where there is complete diversity of citizenship . . . one exception to the requirement for complete diversity is where a non-diverse defendant has been fraudulently joined.” Fraudulent joinder may be established either by “(1) actual fraud in the pleading of jurisdictional facts, or (2) inability of the plaintiff to establish a cause of action against the non-diverse party in state court.” However, “if there is a possibility that a state court would find that the complaint states a cause of action against any of the resident defendants, the federal court must find that the joinder was proper and remand the case to state court.”
Under Washington law, a plaintiff must establish that “(1) he was exposed to asbestos from a particular defendant’s product; and (2) that such exposure was a substantial factor in the development of an asbestos-related injury.”
As to the first prong, Howmet argued that the plaintiff did not identify North Coast at his deposition and his remaining evidence is circumstantial. Specifically, Howmet claimed that records provide “limited sales” by North Coast to Alcoa, and a previous lawsuit filed by the plaintiff’s counsel against North Coast involving Alcoa would have revealed the “scope of the products supplied by North Coast to Alcoa.” The court rejected Howmet’s arguments, recognizing the possibility that the plaintiff could establish North Coast as a supplier of products to Alcoa “through a means other than his own testimony.” The court further found that the circumstantial evidence failed to establish “by clear and convincing evidence” that the plaintiff could not state a claim against North Coast.
As to the second prong, Howmet argued that the plaintiff’s evidence failed to place asbestos-containing products in the areas where the plaintiff worked. The court noted that Howmet’s argument improperly placed the burden on the plaintiff, whereas it was Howmet’s burden “to demonstrate by clear and convincing evidence” that the plaintiff could not make a claim against North Coast “on any theory.”
In concluding that North Coast was not a “sham defendant,” the court granted the plaintiff’s motion to remand the matter to King County Superior Court. It further awarded fees and costs to the plaintiff pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1447(c), based on a determination that Howmet’s removal was “objectively unreasonable.”
Read the full decision here.