The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to review a federal appeals court decision rejecting the resolution of asbestos claims against an insurer, and to decide whether thousands of personal injury plaintiffs may directly sue the insurer. Travelers Indem. Co. v. Bailey, 2008 WL 4106796 (U.S., December 12, 2008).

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 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 confirmation order, 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 Second Circuit, rather than enforce the confirmation order as it was originally written, entered and affirmed on a prior appeal, ruled that Judge Lifland had exceeded the “subject matter jurisdiction” granted by the Judicial 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 exceeded its authority in approving a multi–million dollar settlement of asbestos–related claims filed against Travelers. The court said the bedrock issue in this case requires 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.

Travelers filed a petition for writ of certiorari, as did a group of plaintiff attorneys. Travelers argued that “decades of bankruptcy practice in the lower federal courts” are at risk, and that the Second Circuit opinion is inconsistent with “the carefully crafted legislative scheme Congress constructed.” The plaintiffs petitioner group asserted that the Second Circuit obscured the distinction between jurisdiction and statutory authority and that as a result of the Second Circuit decision, the finality of certain Chapter 11 reorganization plans in federal bankruptcy would be rendered uncertain.

One may wonder whether mass tort reorganization plans might be in jeopardy, under the Second Circuit opinion. Some tens of billions of dollars have been committed to asbestos trusts in cases that relied at least in part on the finality of the Johns-Manville bankruptcy. And the Second Circuit noted that Travelers had alleged that all underlying asbestos settlements were dependent upon the continued validity of the settlement scheme utilized over the past 20 years.