The Supreme Court of Ohio ruled last week that a 2004 state law imposing limits on asbestos litigation should be applied retroactively. Ackison v. Anchor Packing Co., et al., 2008 WL 4601676 (Ohio Oct. 15, 2008). The ruling could affect the 40,000 claims pending in that state, as well as provide a possible precedent for other states considering the same kind of tort reform.

The 2004 Ohio statute extensively revised state laws governing asbestos litigation and was in response to a legislative finding that the current asbestos personal injury litigation system is unfair and inefficient, imposing a severe burden on litigants and taxpayers alike. The bill established certain threshold requirements, including that no person shall bring or maintain certain kinds of asbestos claims (including claims alleging a nonmalignant condition) without filing with the court certain qualifying medical evidence of physical impairment; further, such evidence must be supported by the written opinion of a competent medical authority stating that the claimant’s exposure to asbestos was a substantial contributing factor to his medical condition. The claim of any plaintiff who does not file the required preliminary medical evidence and physician’s statement is to be administratively dismissed “without prejudice” with the court retaining jurisdiction, meaning that a plaintiff would not be barred from reinstating the claim in the future when and if the plaintiff could meet the threshold evidentiary requirements.

The court of appeals found the statute could not constitutionally be applied to any suit that had been filed prior to the effective date of the statutory changes, as such plaintiffs had a vested substantive right to pursue recovery for injury under the statutes that were in effect at the time their complaint was filed.

The supreme court disagreed. In this case, the Ohio General Assembly expressly directed that the prima facie filing requirements at issue apply to cases pending on -and thus filed before- the effective date of the legislation. Because the General Assembly so specified, the issue becomes “whether the statute is substantive, rendering it unconstitutionally retroactive, as opposed to merely remedial.” Under Ohio law, and this is fairly  typical, a statute is substantive if it impairs or takes away vested rights, affects an accrued substantive right, imposes new or additional burdens, duties, obligations, or liabilities as to a past transaction, or creates a new right. Conversely, remedial laws are those affecting only the remedy provided, and include laws that merely substitute a new or more appropriate remedy for the enforcement of an existing right.

The court found that the new law is remedial and procedural in nature and, therefore, not unconstitutionally retroactive. The reform established “a procedural prioritization” of asbestos-related cases, a procedure to prioritize the administration and resolution of a cause of action that already exists. No new substantive burdens are placed on claimants.

Clearly, the types of asbestos claims most impacted by the reform statute are the non-malignant claims, short of true asbestosis which is rare anymore, where some radiographic minor finding is alleged to be an injury. While some lower courts in Ohio had stated that pleural plaque or pleural thickening meets the definition of bodily harm which is a subspecies of physical harm and thus satisfies the injury requirements of Sections 388 and 402A of the Restatement of the Law 2d, Torts. E.g., Verbryke v. Owens-Corning Fiberglas Corp., 84 Ohio App.3d 388, 616 N.E.2d 1162 (1992). The supreme court determined that the Maryland court’s approach is the better reasoned one: in Owens-Illinois, Inc. v. Armstrong, 87 Md.App. 699, 591 A.2d 544 (Md.App.1991), reversed in part on other grounds 326 Md. 107, 604 A.2d 47 (1992), the Court of Special Appeals of Maryland held that the Restatement did not support the conclusion that pleural plaques and pleural thickening alone were sufficient to constitute harm.

Plaintiffs also attacked the statute’s definition of “competent medical authority” which previously had not been defined by either statute or Ohio case law. By choosing to define that term, said the court, the legislature did not take away Ackison’s right to pursue a claim. Nor did the definition alter the quantum of proof necessary for a plaintiff to prevail in an asbestos-related claim. Rather, it merely defined the procedural framework by which trial courts are to adjudicate such claims. The definition of competent medical authority pertains to the witness’s competency to testify and is, in essence, more akin to a rule of evidence. As such, it is procedural in nature.