Supreme Court Issues Opinion in Much-Watched Manville Insurer Asbestos Case

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that an injunction against lawsuits in the landmark bankruptcy case of asbestos manufacturer Johns-Manville does in fact bar claims now asserted by asbestos plaintiffs against the company’s insurer, Travelers Indemnity Co.  In a 7-2 decision, the Supreme Court reversed an opinion by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, ruling that a bankruptcy judge properly interpreted the 1986 injunction to apply to the later claims.

MassTortDefense alerted readers to this case late last year. The case arises from the now-decades old Manville bankruptcy. From the 1920s until the 1970s, Johns-Manville was the largest manufacturer of asbestos-containing products and the largest supplier of raw asbestos in the United States. As a result, in the 1960s and 1970s, Johns-Manville became the target of many product liability suits. Johns-Manville filed for Chapter 11 protection under the federal bankruptcy law on Aug. 26, 1982. On that date, Johns-Manville was a defendant in more than 12,500 asbestos-related suits. To fund its reorganization plan, the bankruptcy court allowed Johns-Manville to settle its insurance claims for about $850 million.

Travelers, Johns-Manville's primary insurer from 1947 to 1976, paid about $100 million into the bankruptcy estate in exchange for a full and final release of Manville-related claims. In 1986, Bankruptcy Judge Lifland entered a series of confirmation orders, inter alia barring any person from commencing any actions based upon, arising out of, or related to insurance policies that Travelers issued to Manville. In 2004, Judge Lifland found that his injunction was being violated by a new species of asbestos-related lawsuits (referred to by some as “direct action” claims) against insurers. These new asbestos claims were part of a global strategy developed by the plaintiffs' bar to put insurers in Manville's shoes and thereby hold them liable on account of their insurance relationship with Manville. The injunction in the meantime had become the model for a statutory change adopted as part of the Bankruptcy Reform Act of 1994, establishing Section 524(g) of the Bankruptcy Code, which expressly authorized the Manville approach to be used in future asbestos bankruptcies.  So the attacks had potentially widespread significance.

The Second Circuit, rather than enforce the confirmation order as it was originally written, which had been affirmed on a prior appeal, ruled that Judge Lifland had exceeded the “subject matter jurisdiction” granted by the bankruptcy code. In re: Johns-Manville Corp., 517 F.3d 52 (2d Cir. 2008). The Second Circuit concluded that the bankruptcy court in 1986 was without power to enjoin all claims that literally arise out of the insurance policies that Manville purchased from Travelers. Thus, the bankruptcy court had also exceeded its authority in approving a multi–million dollar settlement of asbestos claims filed against Travelers. The appeals court said the bedrock issue in this case required a determination as to whether the bankruptcy court had jurisdiction over the disputed statutory and common law claims. While the bankruptcy court repeatedly used the terms “arising out of” and “related to,”  global finality for Travelers is only as global as the bankruptcy court's jurisdiction.

The Supreme Court, however, held "that the terms of the injunction bar the actions and that the finality of the bankruptcy court’s orders following the conclusion of direct review generally stands in the way of challenging the enforceability of the injunction.” Justice David Souter wrote for the majority. The 1986 Orders became final on direct review over two decades ago, and whether the Bankruptcy Court had jurisdiction and authority to enter the injunction in 1986 was not properly before the Court of Appeals in 2008. 

The respondents' position that the 1986 Orders only bar actions against insurers when those actions seek to recover derivatively for Manville’s wrongdoing, but not actions to recover for Travelers’ own alleged misconduct, simply is not what the 1986 Orders say. There is no language limiting it to derivative claims.  The Bankruptcy Court in this case plainly had jurisdiction to interpret and enforce its own prior orders, in part because it explicitly retained jurisdiction to enforce its injunctions.  Once the 1986 Orders became final on direct review (whether or not proper exercises of bankruptcy court jurisdiction and power), they became res judicata to the parties and those in privity with them, not only as to every matter which was offered and received to sustain or defeat the claim or demand, but as to any other admissible matter which might have been offered for that purpose. Those orders are not any the less preclusive because the attack is on the Bankruptcy Court’s conformity with its subject-matter jurisdiction, for even subject-matter jurisdiction generally may not be attacked collaterally.

The Court stated that "our holding is narrow."  They did not resolve whether a bankruptcy court, in 1986 or today, could properly enjoin claims against non-debtor insurers that are not derivative of the debtor’s wrongdoing. Still an important issue in a mass tort driven bankruptcy.  Nor did the Court decide whether any particular respondent is bound by the 1986 Orders.   Thus, the Court appeared to be making an effort not to address the actual underlying issue here.

In a dissenting opinion, however, Justices John Paul Stevens and Ruth Bader Ginsburg
sided with the Second Circuit, arguing that the bankruptcy court had exceeded its jurisdiction by barring the suits. 

More Made In China Products Liability Litigation

A putative class of Florida homeowners recently filed suit against a company that manufactured drywall in China, alleging the material used in their homes emits sulfur compounds that damaged heating and electrical wiring, and created health risks. See Allen v. Knauf Plasterboard Tianjin, No. 09-CV-54-FtM-99 DNF (M.D. Fla., complaint filed 1/30/09). This is just the latest potentially significant suit arising over products made in China. Plaintiffs allege that defendants manufactured drywall that contained fly ash from Chinese coal-fired power plants, causing the product to emit sulfur compounds that create odor and corrode copper in air conditioning units and wiring in homes. At least one home builder has also brought claims over the drywall issues.

Plaintiffs’ attorneys claim that as much as 10 million square feet of such drywall was used in Florida homes due to shortages of American-made drywall between 2004 and 2006. The complaint asserted causes of action including negligence and negligence per se, strict liability, breach of express and implied warranties, fraudulent misrepresentation, and violation of Florida's deceptive and unfair trade practices act. Defendants dispute the allegations and note that any low levels of sulfur compounds present in the air in homes are not a health risk

Regardless of the merits of the case, and clearly such claims are typically inappropriate for class certification because of the individual issues that will be presented by evidence surrounding injury and causation, there is a growing volume of cases over alleged defects in products made in China. Such litigation can also raise insurance coverage disputes. Coverage litigation has erupted concerning the recent heparin drug contamination allegations, for example. What importers tell their insurers about their source of supply; whether subsidiaries are covered; whether importers here are in de facto joint ventures with Chinese suppliers; and similar questions may be front and center in coverage disputes when this type of products litigation hits. Insurance companies seem to be increasingly playing the card that insureds needed to disclose the details of their manufacturing suppliers. The recent China dairy product scandal may have insurers arguing that product defects are the result of intentional, criminal behavior, rather than negligence.

With the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008 seeking to place importers on the hook for defects, U.S. companies may be in the market for more coverage. At the same time, Chinese exporters have not felt the need to buy insurance as they feel judgment-proof in U.S. courts. However, importers may want to consider requiring their suppliers to purchase such insurance as part of the bargaining.