Many mass torts involve multiple defendants, and many of our readers have been in the position of hearing that co-defendants had settled out of the case. It is natural to wonder, and could be quite useful to know, what co-defendants paid to settle their part of the case. Typically, the agreements are subject to confidentiality agreements, and the protections of Fed. R. Evid. 408, which recognizes the strong public policy promoting settlement. See Block Drug Co. v. Sedona Labs., Inc., 2007 WL 1183828, at *1 (D.Del. Apr.19, 2007); Fidelity Fed. Sav. & Loan Assn. v. Felicetti, 148 F.R.D. 532, 534 (E.D.Pa.1993).
A recent federal case tested these boundaries. Dent v. Westinghouse, et al., 2010 WL 56054 (E.D.Pa. Jan. 4, 2010). Warren Pumps, a defendant in multi-party asbestos litigation, filed a motion to compel the plaintiff to respond to certain interrogatories and requests for production of documents regarding the settlement of any claim asserted in the complaint. Plaintiff objected. The thrust of Warren Pumps’ argument was that the discovery about each additional asbestos-containing product which plaintiff claims caused his mesothelioma made it that much less likely that his mesothelioma was caused by exposure to any Warren Pump product. And it allegedly made plaintiff’s assertions to the contrary less and less credible.
Warren Pumps pointed out that on its face Rule 408 pertains to the admissibility of evidence, and argued it was inapplicable to a discovery dispute. (citing DirecTV, Inc. v. Puccinelli, 224 F.R.D. 677, 685 (D.Kan.2004)). Although Rule 408 speaks in terms of admissibility, several courts have concluded that a heightened showing is required for even the discovery of settlement information. That is, they have required a more particularized showing that the evidence of settlement sought is relevant and calculated to lead to the discovery of admissible evidence. Block Drug, 2007 WL 1183828, at *1; Lesal Interiors, Inc. v. Resolution Trust Corp., 153 F.R.D. 561, 562 (D.N.J.1994)).
Warren Pumps also argued that it was not seeking the information for any purpose prohibited by the rule. Rule 408 bars the use of settlement information “to prove liability for, invalidity of, or amount of a claim….” F.R.E. 408(a). Among other purposes, Rule 408 specifically permits settlement evidence to show a witness’s bias or prejudice. F.R.E. 408(b). The defendant contended that it was merely seeking the settlement information to test the credibility of plaintiff’s claims.
The court found this was merely “repackaging” the motives forbidden by Rule 408 by placing them under the guise of credibility. To the extent the defendant was seeking the information to determine whether the dismissed co-defendants were dismissed for lack of evidence, Warren Pumps wanted to impugn the credibility of plaintiff’s claims against Warren Pumps by virtue of his apparently merit-less claims against the dismissed co-defendants. Thus, Warren Pumps sought the information to prove the invalidity of the claims against it, a use which Rule 408 prohibits, said the court. To the extent defendant sought the settlement information, and the amounts of those settlements, it was trying to show that if plaintiff had settled with a co-defendant more or less equivalent in culpability to Warren for a certain sum of money, and thus established the value of his damages with regard to that co-defendant, it would not be credible for plaintiff to seek a higher sum from Warren. But, said the court, this would be using the settlement information to establish the amount of plaintiff’s claim against Warren Pumps. Again, this is forbidden by Rule 408.
Bottom line, the discovery was denied because while disclosure of the settlement agreements would reveal the amount of money plaintiff received from other asbestos manufacturers, the settlement amounts could not then be used to prove the extent of plaintiff’s exposure to, or damages from, asbestos from another manufacturer’s product.