Res Judicata Bars Plaintiff’s Mesothelioma Claim Against Prior Settled Defendant U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana, October 13, 2017
LOUISIANA — The decedent filed an asbestosis lawsuit in 1991 against Owens-Illinois and other defendants. Owens-Illinois settled the claim for $4,000 as part of a group settlement. The Release Agreement stated that the decedent agreed to release the defendant from any cause of action arising out of the decedent’s asbestos-related injury, including mesothelioma, cancer, wrongful death and survival claims. Seventeen years after executing the Release Agreement, the decedent was diagnosed with mesothelioma and eventually passed. His wife and children brought a second action against Owens-Illinois in state court seeking survival and wrongful death damages. After removing the case, Owens-Illinois filed a Motion to Re-Urge State Court Exception of Res Judicata.
Owens-Illinois argued that the motion should be granted because the Release Agreement clearly and unambiguously released it from future claims, including mesothelioma. The plaintiffs countered by arguing that two elements of the doctrine of res judicata had not been met, that the parties never intended to release mesothelioma claims, that the Release Agreement is void because the decedent was never compensated for the mesothelioma diagnosis, and that the Release Agreement violates public policy.
Owens-Illinois bore the burden of proof to establish the requisites for a valid compromise, including the parties’ intent to settle the differences being asserted in the action. However, where a settlement and release agreement expressly refers to the claim sought to be released by the party seeking to enforce the settlement, the burden shifts to the party seeking to oppose the enforcement of the agreement to prove there was no meeting of the minds.
The court found that the Release Agreement was valid, even though it was not signed by both parties, because Owens-Illinois’ attorney electronically signed the last page of the Settlement Agreement, a settlement check request form affirmed that the decedent was to receive $4,000 of the total group settlement, and the group settlement check bore the signature of Owens-Illinois’ treasurer. Relying on state court precedent, the court also found that decedent’s mesothelioma claim existed at the time of execution of the Release Agreement in 1991, because it included an express release of future mesothelioma claims, along with wrongful death and survival claims.
The court also found that the plaintiffs failed to carry their burden of proving the invalidity of the Release Agreement. Specifically, the court held that the parties intended to settle mesothelioma claims because the Release Agreement expressly mentioned mesothelioma and the decedent and his wife signed the Release Agreement. Furthermore, Louisiana law holds that the actual value a party receives is inconsequential if the settlement agreement includes a specific reference to the claim being released. The court also held that the Release Agreement did not violate public policy because the tortious act had already been committed when the Release Agreement was executed. The court therefore granted Owens-Illinois’ Motion and dismissed the case.