The Florida court of appeals earlier today rejected retroactive application of the state’s Asbestos and Silica Compensation Fairness Act, finding that the many claimants who filed claims prior to the statute’s enactment need not plead or prove that they developed a malignancy or impairment as a result of their exposure. Williams, et al. v. American Optical Corp., et al., No. 4D07-143 (Fla. Ct. App., 4th DCA, May 28, 2008).
The decision conflicts with the opinion of another Florida court a few months ago, DaimlerChrysler Corp. v. Hurst, 949 So.2d 279 (Fla. 3d DCA 2007), and is of potential significance because of the wave of reform statutes passed in various states recently in an attempt to bring some fairness and justice to the grandfather of all mass torts, asbestos, and its lurking dust cousin, silica. E.g., Ohio Rev. Code Ann. §§ 2307.71-80; 2307.84-90; 2307.901 (including a requirement that claimants meet certain medical criteria establishing impairment before proceeding with their claims); Kansas (Silica & Asbestos Claims Act, S.B. 512); South Carolina (Asbestos & Silica Claim Procedures Act, S.C. Code Ann. § 44-135-10 et seq.); Tennessee (Silica Compensation Fairness Act, Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-34-301 et seq.).
In the spring of 2005, the Florida Legislature passed the Asbestos and Silica Compensation Fairness Act, which not only requires plaintiffs to show they meet certain medical criteria before proceeding with their claims but also requires that plaintiffs be Florida residents before filing claims in Florida courts. See Fla. Stat. Ann. § 774.201-774.209. The Fourth DCA consolidated several appeals from plaintiffs whose claims were dismissed for not complying with the Act. The issue was stated: Can the Florida Asbestos and Silica Compensation Fairness Act be retroactively applied to prejudice or defeat causes of action already accrued and in litigation? And the court held that the Act cannot constitutionally be so applied.
The long and persistent asbestos litigation led the Florida Legislature to enact the Florida Asbestos and Silica Compensation Fairness Act, which became effective in 2005. The Legislature found that the number of asbestos-related claims has increased significantly in recent years. The true victims of asbestos, the truly injured, were in danger of not receiving compensation, as those who were exposed and could point to some minimal indication of impact without any impairment or disability, soaked up all the resources. The Act made significant changes to the cause of action for damages resulting from an exposure to asbestos. Before the Act was adopted, it was not necessary for any plaintiff to establish that any malignancy or physical impairment had resulted from their exposure and their “asbestosis.” Under the Act, however, a claimant bringing an action for damages from exposure to asbestos must now, as an indispensable element, plead and prove an existing malignancy or actual physical impairment for which asbestos exposure was a substantial contributing factor. Plaintiffs’ asbestosis claims were dismissed for failing to meet these requirements.
Under Florida’s Constitution, one form of intangible property is a cause of action. This is a right grounded in tort, property or contract law to recover a judgment for money or property from another person whose conduct or activity is deemed by applicable law to have caused the claimant to suffer damage or a loss. Retroactive provisions of a legislative act are invalid when they destroy vested rights. When a cause of action accrues it becomes a substantive vested right. In contrast, said the court, when a right to sue is inchoate, a mere prospect, it is merely an expectation that if another person does someday engage in specific conduct or activity causing some injury, and a specific cause of action has then accrued, the person so aggrieved may then be able to bring an action in court to vindicate the claim in money damages. It is well established that the right to sue on an inchoate cause of action — one that has not yet accrued — is not a vested right because no one has a vested right in the common law.
The question therefore became whether before the statute was enacted Florida law recognized a cause of action for damages arising from the disease of “asbestosis” without any permanent impairment or the presence of cancer. The 4th DCA thought the answer was yes, citing Eagle-Picher Industries Inc. v. Cox, 481 So.2d 517 (Fla. 3d DCA 1985), although that was really a negligent infliction of emotional distress case, and Zell v. Meek, 665 So.2d 1048 (Fla. 1995), although in that case the allegation was of serious lung damage, and Willis v. Gami Golden Glades LLC, 967 So.2d 846 (Fla. 2007), which again seemed to focus on alleged emotional effects from exposures.
The appeals court disagreed, implicitly, with the Legislature’s statement that the Act was intended to simply change the form of asbestos claimants’ remedies without impairing their substantive rights. And rejected defendants’ argument that plaintiffs can have no vested right in their claimed cause of action because, in the absence of a true injury in the form of malignancy or impairment, it is a mere expectancy. The right to pursue a cause of action is generally considered to have become vested when the cause of action has accrued. A cause of action accrues when “the last element constituting the cause of action occurs.” § 95.031(1), Fla. Stat. (2007). Constitutionally, a new statute becoming effective after a cause of action has already accrued may not be applied to eliminate or curtail the cause of action. In the appealed cases, plaintiffs alleged a previous exposure to asbestos resulting in what they called the disease of asbestosis, which in turn had manifested itself in some way. Thus, for each, the cause of action had passed from an expectation to the accrual of the right to sue for damages.
Conflict With the 3rd DCA
The opinion attempts to distinguish the decision of the Third District in DaimlerChrysler Corporation v. Hurst, 949 So.2d 279 (Fla. 3d DCA 2007), on the grounds that even under the law existing before the Act the result in Hurst might have been sustained because of the lack of any proof that asbestos was a proximate or even concurring cause of lung cancer. However, the court recognized that in the trial courts in the state, Hurst is being applied to dismiss asbestosis cases like the ones on appeal in which there is no cancer injury or any failure to link asbestos to the injury. Accordingly, the 4th DCA certified that a circuit conflict exists with Hurst to the extent that it does stand for a holding that the Act may be validly applied to asbestosis claimants with accrued causes of action for damages but without permanent impairments or any malignancy.
The 4th DCA did not address in any real depth the reasoning of the 3rd DCA, which noted that the legislature in enacting the Act claimed that the Act does not impair vested rights because the Act expressly preserves the right of all injured persons to recover full compensatory damages for their loss. When the plaintiffs filed their asbestos claims, they were pursuing a common law tort theory. A person has no property, no vested interest, in any rule of the common law. Prior to the enactment of the Act, the plaintiffs had, at most, a “mere expectation” that the common law would not be altered by legislation. See generally Wilson v. AC&S, Inc., 169 Ohio App.3d 720, 864 N.E.2d 682 (Ohio App. 12 Dist. 2006)(retroactive application of Ohio reform statute).
This circuit split means the issue will likely wind up before the Florida Supreme Court at some time.
Finally, the court noted that after giving the entire text of the Act — especially its preamble of purpose — a careful reading in light of these considerations, it is not intellectually possible to disconnect the several provisions of the Act. Thus, the Act, in its entirety, may not constitutionally be applied to deprive asbestos claimants of an accrued cause of action for damages resulting from exposure to asbestos. Tellingly, the language used by the opinion to describe the legislative purpose betrays the court’s view of the legislation: “whose singular purpose is to end litigation by claimants who have been damaged by asbestos exposure without resulting malignancy or physical impairment.”
What the legislature actually said, was that it wanted to give priority to true victims of asbestos and silica, claimants who can demonstrate actual physical impairment caused by exposure to asbestos or silica, while fully preserving the rights of claimants who were merely exposed to asbestos or silica to pursue compensation if they become impaired in the future as a result of the exposure. The Act would also enhance the ability of the judicial system to supervise and control asbestos and silica litigation; and conserve the scarce resources of the defendants to permit compensation to cancer victims and others who are physically impaired by exposure to asbestos or silica while securing the right to similar compensation for those who may suffer physical impairment in the future.
Nevertheless, the court ruled that plaintiff need only show that they suffered an injury from an asbestos-related, non-malignant disease. The trial court decisions to the contrary were reversed.