Successor Liability Rejected in Aircraft Case

One of the interesting types of projects your humble blogger gets to work on from time to time concerns product liability and mass tort issues that arise from the M&A context, including due diligence going into a deal and successor liability issues coming out of a deal.  Recently a federal court held that the successor to the assets of an aircraft manufacturer was not liable for injuries arsing from the crash of an airplane built before the acquisition. See Thornton v. M7 Aerospace LP, No. 12 C 329, (N.D. Ill., 10/23/12).

The aircraft was a Fairchild Aircraft SA227-DC Metro 23, with tail number VH-TFU.  On approach to Lockhart River Airport, Australia, the aircraft crashed, resulting in the deaths of the passengers and crew. The incident was one of the worst civil aviation accidents in Australian history.  The plane was designed, manufactured, assembled, tested, and sold by Fairchild Aircraft, Inc. Fairchild went bankrupt in 2002 and as a result, Fairchild and defendant executed an Asset Purchase Agreement.  The agreement stated that the buyer/defendant assumed no ”liability for personal injury or property damage arising at any time out of or in connection with goods manufactured, produced, distributed or sold by the Sellers prior to the Closing Date, including but not limited to any Product Liability claims." 

In 2007, plaintiffs commenced this negligence and strict products liability action against numerous defendants including defendant M7. In the Second Amended Complaint, plaintiffs asserted claims against M7 in two categories: direct claims and indirect claims. First, plaintiffs’ indirect claims sought to impose vicarious liability on defendant as successor-in-interest to Fairchild. Plaintiffs alleged that defendant “is indirectly liable in strict product liability and negligence for the actions of its predecessor, Fairchild, in its defective and negligent design of the [Subject Aircraft], its failure to warn of the defects and its failure to advise operators to fit the aircraft with an "Enhanced Ground Proximity Warning System.” Second, plaintiffs’ direct claims sought to impose liability on defendant for its independent conduct in allegedly breaching of its own duty to so warn and advise.

The EGPWS claims argued M7 was negligent in failing to advise the owner and operator of the aircraft to install a new system that system was an improvement on the conventional ground proximity warning system because, among other reasons, it allegedly was capable of providing increased warning time to pilots about potential terrain conflicts by incorporating additional functions into the conventional ground proximity warning system.

Defendant moved for summary judgment.  On plaintiff’s claims of successor liability, it argued that
M& had as a matter of law “no liability as the successor corporation to Fairchild.” The Court agreed.
Under applicable Illinois law, a corporation which purchases the assets of another corporation is not generally liable for the debts and liabilities of the transferor in the absence of an agreement providing otherwise. The court explained that this traditional rule of successor corporate non-liability developed as a response to the need to protect bona fide purchasers from unassumed liability and was designed to maximize the fluidity of corporate assets. See Diguilio v. Goss Int’l Corp., 389 Ill. App. 3d 1052, 1059-60, 329 Ill. Dec. 657, 906 N.E.3d 1268 (Ill. App. Ct. 2009).

 A successor corporation can face liability, if one of the following four exceptions applies: (1) if there is an express or implied agreement of assumption; (2) if the transaction between the purchaser and the seller corporation is a consolidation or merger; (3) if the purchaser is a continuation of the seller; or (4) if the transaction is an attempt to escape liability for the seller’s obligations.  Illinois does not recognize the so-called product line exception.

Here, the undisputed evidence showed that the Bankruptcy Court approved the transfer of
Fairchild’s assets “free and clear of any and all liens, claims and encumbrances”, and to a purchaser that was not an insider, affiliate or owner of Fairchild. Plaintiffs argued that defendant ought to have successor liability because it “impliedly assumed Fairchild’s continuing duty to warn.”  But, the court noted, the question is not whether M7 impliedly assumed a duty to warn, but rather whether M7 had an implied agreement with Fairchild whereby M7 agreed to assume Fairchild’s liabilities.  And it did not.

On the direct claim, plaintiffs alleged that defendant owed – and breached – an independent duty to advise owners and operators of the accident aircraft to fit that aircraft with an Enhanced Ground Proximity Warning System. To prevail on their claims of direct (i.e. non-successor) liability, plaintiffs needed to establish that defendant owed an independent duty to warn of the alleged defects in the plane.  Illinois courts have recognized a limited cause of action against the purchaser of a
product line for failing to warn of defects in its predecessor’s products. See Kaleta v. Whittaker Corp., 221 Ill. App. 3d 705, 715, 164 Ill. Dec. 651, 583 N.E.2d 567 (1991).  The critical element required for the imposition of this duty is a continuing relationship between the successor and the
predecessor’s customers benefitting the successor. To determine the presence of a nexus or
relationship effective to create a duty to warn, the following factors are considered: (1) succession to a predecessor’s service contracts; (2) coverage of the particular machine under a service contract; (3) service of that machine by the purchaser corporation; and (4) a purchaser corporation’s knowledge of defects and of the location or owner of that machine.

Here, viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to plaintiffs, there was an insufficient nexus or relationship between defendant and the operator of the aircraft to impose an independent duty to warn upon defendant. Plaintiffs focused their argument on the relationship between defendant and the product line generally, but that is not the legal standard: Illinois law focuses on the relationship between the successor (here, defendant) and the operator of the allegedly defective unit (here, Transair).  It was undisputed that M7 did not assume any of Fairchild’s serve contracts relating
to the plane, and that M7 never serviced, maintained, or repaired the plane. There was no evidence that it worked on or had any contact with the subject aircraft.

Finally, under a voluntary undertaking theory of liability, the duty of care to be imposed upon a defendant is limited to the extent of the undertaking.” Bell v. Hutsell, 2011 IL 110724, 353 Ill. Dec. 288, 293-95, 955 N.E.2d 1099 (2011) (stating that Illinois courts look to the Restatement (Second) of Torts to define the theory). Here, defendant argued that plaintiffs’ voluntarily undertaking theory fails because even if it undertook a duty (which it disputed) regarding warnings and advice to owners and operators, plaintiffs failed to proffer sufficient evidence of reliance. Again, the Court agreed. Illinois law requires proof of reliance; that is, proof that the operator (here, Transair) relied on the defendant’s voluntary undertaking of a duty to warn. See, e.g., Chisolm v. Stephens, 47 Ill. App. 3d 999, 7 Ill. Dec. 795, 365 N.E.2d 80, 86 (Ill. App. Ct. 1977). Plaintiffs offered no such proof.

Summary judgment granted.

Case of Successor Liability for Asbestos Exposure Claims

New York's highest court has ruled that a buyer assumed the liability for certain asbestos-related claims under a sale contract when it bought the boiler business of plaintiff American Standard Inc. back in 1970. American Standard Inc. v. Oakfabco Inc., 2010 WL 1286394 (N.Y., 4/6/10).

The court said that the issue here was whether the buyer of a boiler business assumed the seller's liabilities for tort claims based on boilers sold before the business was acquired, even where the tort claimants were not exposed/injured until after the acquisition. In 1970, American Standard, Inc. sold its Kewanee Boiler division to OakFabco, Inc. The parties entered an asset purchase and sale agreement in which the buyer assumed certain liabilities. The boilers manufactured by Kewanee had been insulated with asbestos, and as a result many tort claims were brought in the years and decades following the purchase of the business.

Some of those claims were brought by plaintiffs who had suffered injuries after the closing of the transaction, allegedly attributable to boilers manufactured and sold before the closing. In this declaratory judgment action brought by American Standard against OakFabco, the issue was whether liabilities for such injuries were among the liabilities that OakFabco assumed.  OakFabco argued that the definition of the liabilities OakFabco assumed was limited to "existing and outstanding” liabilities as of the Closing Date. According to OakFabco, a tort claim cannot be “existing and outstanding” before the tort plaintiff has been exposed and injured, because until then it is not possible for a tort lawsuit to be brought.

The court found, however, that the overall contract language meant that the buyer would deal with any problems customers had after the closing date with boilers that had been installed previously. It would have been absurd for OakFabco, said the court, to tell a customer whose boiler failed after the closing that, since the customer's claim was not “existing and outstanding” on the closing date, it was not OakFabco's problem. By including warranty, service, repair and return claims in the definition of liabilities, the parties demonstrated that they were not reading the words “existing and outstanding” as OakFabco now did.

The court therefore concluded that the liabilities assumed by OakFabco included claims brought by tort claimants injured after the closing date by boilers installed before that date.

The case is a timely reminder that an important aspect of evaluating the possible acquisition of a target company is the potential litigation liability that may be acquired simultaneously. If a target company is involved, or could potentially become involved, in mass tort litigation, it presents both risk and opportunity to the acquirer. The threat of this type of litigation may result in the opportunity to acquire a target at a below-market valuation multiple, and the uncertainty caused by mass tort exposure can result in valuation discounts that make the attendant risk acceptable. There are potentially significant risks, however, associated with mass tort litigation exposure, such as in asbestos, and thus buyers must proceed carefully. In the private equity context, in particular, mass tort litigation exposure can adversely impact the ability to secure third-party debt financing and can have an adverse impact on investment exit. Private equity purchasers may have shorter investment time frames than strategic buyers, and mass tort litigation often takes a substantial amount of time to resolve itself.

The general rule of law, and the typical structure of an asset purchase agreement, is that an acquirer of the assets of another corporation for cash does not acquire the liability for prior injuries caused by products sold by the target company prior to closing. It is crucial that the language be clearly drafted to reflect the parties' agreement on the allocation of such liability.

Even when the parties purport to allocate such liability to the target, however, the buyer may find itself responsible for the litigation through the operation of various legal doctrines that are exceptions to the general rule. The Restatement (Third) of Product Liability Law notes that a business entity that acquires assets of a predecessor business entity is subject to liability for harm caused by a defective product sold by the predecessor if the acquisition results from a fraudulent conveyance to escape liability for the liabilities of the predecessor, or results in the successor becoming a mere continuation of the predecessor. A few states also add the so-called “product line” exception, which allows a plaintiff to recover for injuries caused by a defective product sold by the predecessor in cases in which the successor corporation has continued the predecessor’s product line.

Thus, even in the absence of an actual merger or stock acquisition, or contract language assuming liability, it may be that a buyer of corporate assets will still face exposure to product litigation liability risks. Attempting to structure the deal to try to minimize the possible application of such theories will often be the first line of defense. In an asset sale, the buyer may also want to seek a provision that the seller shall not dissolve for some set period of time, so that the mass tort plaintiffs’ other remedies seemingly are not destroyed. Special indemnification by the seller for the underlying exposure is another alternative. This indemnification should survive for a sufficient period of time, and ideally would not be subject to a special cap higher than is typical for representations made by a “clean” company. The use of a special escrow to set aside funds for the litigation indemnification may be important.
 

Summary Judgment Granted on Successor Liability Claim

The issue of successor liability is a recurring one in products liability, and the specter of mass tort liability should be an important aspect of due diligence in corporate acquisitions. This point is illustrated by a recent case in which the federal court in Oregon granted summary judgment to alleged successor corporations of a company that manufactured allegedly defective pain pumpsCox v. DJO LLC, Case No. 07-1310 (D. Or. 11/16/09).

Plaintiffs underwent arthroscopic shoulder surgery in which surgeons inserted pain pump devices in their shoulder joints to deliver pain medication via catheter.  Plaintiffs alleged they subsequently developed glenohumeral chondrolysis - a condition involving the deterioration and loss of cartilage in the shoulder joint.  McKinley LLC manufactured the pain pumps devices, part of product lines known commercially as the Accufuser and beeLINE.  Plaintiffs alleged strict products liability and negligence against McKinley LLC as the manufacturer, and against Moog Inc. and Curlin Medical Inc. as successors in interest. Defendants Moog and Curlin moved for summary judgment on plaintiffs' claims that they were liable as the successor corporations, arguing that the acquisition of the Accufuser and beeLINE product lines was nothing more than a purchase of assets that cannot establish successor liability.

Under Oregon law, as is the general rule, when a corporation purchases the assets of another corporation, the purchasing corporation generally does not assume the debts and liabilities of the selling corporation. However, the purchaser may be responsible for the seller's liabilities if: 1) the purchasing corporation expressly or impliedly agrees to assume those liabilities; 2) the transaction
constitutes a consolidation or merger of the corporations; 3) the purchasing corporation is a "mere continuation" of the selling corporation; or 4) the corporations effectuated the transaction for
fraudulent purposes to escape liability.

The court reviewed the possible exceptions. First, Moog and Curlin did not expressly or impliedly agree to assume liability arising from pain pump products manufactured and sold by McKinley LLC prior to the conveyance of assets. To the contrary, the Assignment and Merger Agreement expressly and specifically identified the existing liabilities that were transferred after the merger.

Second, despite plaintiffs' repeated assertions, neither Moog nor Curlin merged or consolidated with McKinley LLC. Instead, it is undisputed that Curlin merged with McKinley Medical Corp., a separate corporation,  and acquired the Accufuser and beeLINE product lines as a result. That is, Moog and its wholly owned subsidiary, Curlin, entered into an agreement to purchase McKinley LLC's Accufuser and beeLINE product lines. Under the terms of the agreement, McKinley LLC transferred these product lines to McKinley Medical Corp., a subsidiary it created solely for purposes of the asset transfer. Curlin then merged with McKinley Medical Corp. and acquired the product lines. Plaintiffs tried to imply that this transaction constituted a de facto merger between McKinley LLC and Moog/Curlin, because it effectively continued the pain pump business of McKinley LLC. Plaintiffs emphasize that the manufacture, distribution, and sales of the Accufuser and beeLINE pain pumps continued uninterrupted. However, Oregon has explicitly rejected a "product line" exception to the general rules governing successor liability.

Third, the evidence did not support a finding that Moog or Curlin is a "mere continuation" of McKinley LLC. "A successor corporation is merely a continuation of the predecessor
corporation, despite a business transformation, if it is substantially the same as the predecessor corporation." Alicki v. Intratec USA, Inc., 769 F. Supp. 336, 340 (D. Or. 1991). Here, importantly, McKinley LLC retained assets after the Assignment and Merger Agreement and distributed the Walkmed pain pumps until 2007. McKinley LLC remains an existing, separate corporate entity and an active defendant in this cases.  Moreover, no continuity of management, directors, or
shareholders exists between McKinley LLC and Curlin or Moog.

Finally, plaintiffs presented no persuasive evidence that the corporate forms of McKinley LLC, Curlin, or Moog were improperly manipulated for purposes of fraud, or that the Assignment and
Merger Agreement left McKinley LLC insolvent or otherwise unable to answer for its debts.

Evaluating Mass Torts In An M&A Context- Part II

In our last post, MassTortDefense began a discussion of the need for and process of evaluating mass torts in a merger or acquisition context. An important aspect of evaluating the possible acquisition of a target company is the potential litigation liability that may be acquired simultaneously. Even in the absence of an actual merger or stock acquisition, it may be that a buyer of corporate assets will still face exposure to product litigation liability risks.

Mass Tort Due Diligence: Goals and Methodology

The due diligence analysis to help answer the question “What am I buying into?” may involve actual data and dollars. But, requiring as it does judgments about the future litigation environment, it may not result in a precise numerical risk estimate. Thus, the buyer will ultimately make a business judgment about the range of risks that are acceptable in light of numerous factors, including assets available to cover the risks (such as insurance and indemnifications), and the financial benefits of the deal.

Experience has shown the optimal approach to the mass tort due diligence inquiry is to approach the risk question from numerous distinct perspectives, and then combine the learning from the approaches to help minimize the impact of gaps in knowledge. This allows extrapolations to be made with greater confidence. (Such due diligence is best conducted by counsel with experience in the mass tort arena and the ability to apply an understanding of the forces driving product liability claims. )


Due Diligence Approaches: Claims History

If the target company has been involved in the litigation, the current claims status, the past claims history, and the trends that may be emerging will be analyzed. Together, the claims picture will be a useful, albeit imperfect, predictor of future litigation risks. New waves of plaintiffs, new scientific studies, and new revelations from internal documents are not unusual features that can morph mass tort litigation and impact the number of claims.

The due diligence process may include the number of claims filed and the current status of all filed cases. It may be important to know the types of cases, the injuries alleged, the occupations of plaintiffs, exposure scenarios alleged, and the dates of exposure to the product. In some instances, the legal theories involved may be important, as well as the status of any case aggregations. The jurisdictions in which the claims are filed can have a significant impact on claim value. The due diligence inquiry may also explore the identity of the plaintiff firms involved.

The process will almost certainly explore those cases resolved already, and the facts that have been important to settlements, motions practice, and verdicts, favorable or not. The target should provide detailed information on all settlement terms. The due diligence review should not overlook other claims costs to the target, including attorney fees and disbursements for experts. Any changing patterns in the claims or dollars should be explored as well.

There are numerous sources that may be consulted for the claims information, beyond information from the seller’s deal counsel. These include SEC filings, annual reports, press releases, court dockets, and published case reports. Another useful set of resources may include the in-house counsel managing the litigation, the outside defense attorney of the target, and the seller’s insurance company.

The Product Dimension: Usage and Sales History

A complementary approach is to gain an understanding of the product involved, its uses, marketing, and warnings; the nature of the alleged defects; and the regulatory environment governing such products. Product usage and sales can help form an estimate of the population from which actual claimants may arise. This approach might include a historical dimension, if the product changed at any point in design or in its warnings. The useful life of the product can help determine whether the hazards are confined to a certain time frame or may extend beyond sales dates. An underrated factor is how easy it would be for plaintiffs to identify the target’s brand as the actual brand they used. Due diligence may want to examine the sales records that would allow plaintiffs to identify the acquisition target as the relevant manufacturer.

The chain of distribution may be traced to analyze the consumers the target sold to, and thus the potential plaintiffs. For example, the customers may be part of an older population which is diminishing actuarially. Similarly, it may be provident to assess how claimants could have been exposed to the product, with an eye to the credibility of alleged exposure scenarios. Beyond end users, other potential plaintiffs may be involved, including installers, repairers, and bystanders.

While plaintiffs’ lawyers are often unencumbered by such products facts when they sue, the number of units sold, over what time period, and used by which consumers in what ways, may still be instructive of future risk.

The Medicine and Science of Potential Claims

The third recommended approach begins with the proposition that the science of plaintiffs’ claims can dramatically impact the litigation in either direction. For example, even if a company has stopped selling a product, if the latency period is 30 years, the company can theoretically see claims for three decades after stopping sales. Another science issue may be “general causation,” the ability of the product to cause the type of injury alleged. There may also be a need to assess “specific causation” in the litigation. That is, even if a product is capable of causing a disease, it does not necessarily mean that all product users with the disease got it from the product.

These medical and scientific issues associated with a product’s hazards can impact the size of the potential universe of claimants, the causation issue, and even the availability of additional, novel claims against the target company, such as medical monitoring.

The Rest of the Story: Assets

The due diligence inquiry may also include an investigation of the assets available to respond to possible litigation costs, including defense costs. This may involve contractual indemnification, or possible contribution or indemnification claims available as a matter of statutory or common law against others in the product’s chain of distribution. It may include a review of insurance and the status of any coverage litigation.

Evaluating Mass Torts In An M&A Context

For today’s post, MassTortDefense takes a step away from our usual fare of recent decisions and current events to discuss a broader topic: evaluating mass torts in a merger or acquisition context.

Acquiring Litigation Liability and Structural Considerations

An important aspect of evaluating the possible acquisition of a target company is the potential litigation liability that may be acquired simultaneously. If a target company is involved, or could potentially become involved, in mass tort litigation, it presents both risk and opportunity to the acquirer. The threat of this type of litigation may result in the opportunity to acquire a target at a below-market valuation multiple, and the uncertainty caused by mass tort exposure can result in valuation discounts that make the attendant risk acceptable. There are potentially significant risks, however, associated with mass tort litigation exposure, and thus buyers must proceed carefully. In the private equity context, in particular, mass tort litigation exposure can adversely impact the ability to secure third-party debt financing and can have an adverse impact on investment exit. Private equity purchasers may have shorter investment time frames than strategic buyers, and mass tort litigation often takes a substantial amount of time to resolve itself.

The general rule of law, and the typical structure of an asset purchase agreement, is that an acquirer of the assets of another corporation for cash does not acquire the liability for prior injuries caused by products sold by the target company prior to closing. Even when the parties purport to allocate such liability to the target, however, the buyer may find itself responsible for the litigation through the operation of various legal doctrines that are exceptions to the general rule.

The Restatement (Third) of Product Liability Law notes that a business entity that acquires assets of a predecessor business entity is subject to liability for harm caused by a defective product sold by the predecessor if the acquisition results from a fraudulent conveyance to escape liability for the liabilities of the predecessor, or results in the successor becoming a mere continuation of the predecessor. A few states also add the so-called “product line” exception, which allows a plaintiff to recover for injuries caused by a defective product sold by the predecessor in cases in which the successor corporation has continued the predecessor’s product line.

Thus, even in the absence of an actual merger or stock acquisition, it may be that a buyer of corporate assets will still face exposure to product litigation liability risks. Attempting to structure the deal to try to minimize the possible application of such theories will often be the first line of defense. In an asset sale, the buyer may also want to seek a provision that the seller shall not dissolve for some set period of time, so that the mass tort plaintiffs’ remedies seemingly are not destroyed. Special indemnification by the seller for the underlying exposure is another alternative. This indemnification should survive for a sufficient period of time, and ideally would not be subject to a special cap higher than is typical for representations made by a “clean” company. The use of a special escrow to set aside funds for the litigation indemnification may be important.

When the target company is involved in mass tort litigation, the successor liability risks to the buyer must be examined even more carefully. Buyers must recognize that the successor liability determination may be made by a state court confronting thousands of tort suits and applying the law of the home state of the plaintiff who, absent a finding of successor liability, may be without an adequate remedy. It may not be possible for a buyer to negotiate indemnification that lasts long enough, or is backed by a large enough escrow to eliminate material risks. Thus, it may be a mistake to rely too readily on contractual safeguards without a clear understanding of the future litigation risks.

Mass Tort Risks
A mass tort’s numerous claims pose incredible financial risks, as evidenced by the bankruptcies of large, otherwise prosperous entities because of such litigation. A simple snapshot of any current litigation may understate the potential number of claims, especially if there is a long latency period—the time between exposure to the product at issue and manifestation of the disease allegedly caused by the product. Aggregation of many claims in one procedure, such as a class action, may create an all-or-nothing risk for defendants, compelling what some courts term “blackmail settlements.” Even if the risks of being found liable as a successor seem small, the magnitude of the possible harm generated by the mass tort dictates that the due diligence process carefully evaluate the potential liability.

Mass Tort Due Diligence: Goals and Methodology

The due diligence analysis to help answer the question “What am I buying into?” may involve actual data and dollars. But, requiring as it does judgments about the future litigation environment, it may not result in a precise numerical risk estimate. Thus, the buyer will ultimately make a business judgment about the range of risks that are acceptable in light of numerous factors, including assets available to cover the risks (such as insurance and indemnifications), and the financial benefits of the deal.

Experience has shown the optimal approach to the mass tort due diligence inquiry is to approach the risk question from numerous distinct perspectives, and then combine the learning from the approaches to help minimize the impact of gaps in knowledge. This allows extrapolations to be made with greater confidence.

In the next post, MassTortDefense will describe three such perspectives that can offer insight.