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.