This mesothelioma case originated in Louisiana, and then was transferred to an MDL in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. After common discovery in the MDL, cases are either resolved on summary judgment by that court and then remanded to the originating court for entry of final judgment, or, if they cannot be settled, remanded to the originating district court for trial. This case was resolved by the MDL Court on summary judgment, which was entered as final by the Louisiana district court on remand from the MDL court. After resolving the jurisdictional issues, (see Williams v. Seidenbach, Inc., 958 F.3d 341 (5th Cir. 2020) (en banc)), the Fifth Circuit now takes up the merits of the appeal.
Initially the Court of Appeal reversed the summary judgment that had previously been entered by the MDL Court on the issue of specific causation:
“First, the MDL court accepted that Williams worked, for some amount of time, in a building that had asbestos, and expert testimony indicates the asbestos was deteriorating and becoming airborne during his tenure. An inference taken in favor of the non-moving party would be that Williams, who for some amount of time had to breathe in the spaces where asbestos was deteriorating, was exposed to this airborne asbestos. The MDL court, though, found that there was ‘no evidence that Williams was ever exposed to respirable asbestos dust at any location in the facility.’ Second, in a summary judgment order rendered that same day regarding another defendant, the MDL court relied on evidence that Williams saw individuals in moon suits to assume he was present during the asbestos remediation. Just the opposite seems to have been inferred here, as the MDL court in Boeing’s summary judgment order stated that there was ‘no evidence that Williams was working nearby (or in that building at all) when that remediation work was performed,’ despite the fact that Williams also had witnessed the likely remediation efforts. Third, the Williams’ expert, Frank Parker, testified that Williams would have been exposed ‘frequently to above-average ambient background levels of asbestos (as a result of maintenance and repair work occurring in the facility in buildings in which he worked/visited).’ The MDL court, though, inferred that the presence of ambient asbestos could not have contributed to Williams’s illness. Based on this record, whether Williams was exposed to respirable asbestos is a disputed issue of fact.
“These inferences made in favor of Boeing, the moving party, are particularly significant in light of the MDL court’s conclusion that the evidence was ‘insufficient to support a finding of causation.’ The MDL court found that, ‘although the evidence makes clear that there was asbestos throughout the facility during and prior to Decedent’s work there, there is no evidence that Decedent was ever exposed to respirable asbestos dust at any location in the facility.’ In support of this finding, the MDL court also found that the evidence that Williams primarily worked in Building 350 was not ‘sufficiently specific’ to allow a jury to conclude he was exposed to asbestos during an abatement project because ‘the evidence that Decedent primarily worked in Building 350 does not exclude the possibility that he was not working there during the asbestos abatement project.’ Finding to the contrary, the MDL court found, ‘would be impermissibly speculative.’ We conclude that ‘speculation’ would not be involved, only a potentially reasonable inference. Although the MDL court concluded that the record did not support a finding that Williams was exposed, we cannot say that, taking all inferences in favor of Williams, the non-moving party, that no reasonable juror could have found for him on the evidence before the court.”
The Court of Appeal then took up a discovery ruling which prevented plaintiffs from reopening discovery as to Boeing once Boing was added as a defendant to the suit. Although loath to inject themselves into such case management decisions absent compelling reasons, the Court of Appeal was left with uncertainties about the discovery limitations:
“The Plaintiffs explain their delay in joining Boeing as a defendant by arguing that Boeing’s alleged role at the MAF had only become apparent in documents received shortly before they added Boeing to the suit. Further, even though the Plaintiffs gave no explanation for their initial delay in serving discovery requests on Boeing after naming it as a party, they are correct that Boeing avoided turning over documents by filing various motions that delayed discovery until dispositive motions had been decided after the scheduled close of discovery….
“Boeing is correct that the discovery requests are expansive. Some of the information, though, might have advanced the Plaintiffs’ case across two dimensions and may not have been available from other sources. First, evidence showing Boeing’s control of the relevant workspaces could have shown whether Boeing was responsible for installing or maintaining asbestos in the buildings that Williams was known to have frequented. Second, and relatedly, it could have decreased the uncertainty about Williams’s connection to Boeing by way of showing the extent of Boeing’s involvement at the MAF.
“Without knowing more about what was already available to the Plaintiffs by way of other parties or through discovery sharing tools set up by the MDL court, we do not know if denying the motion to reopen discovery was either arbitrary or clearly unreasonable or even if it prejudiced the Plaintiffs. To reverse this discovery decision, both must be true. If the Plaintiffs were denied the opportunity to seek discovery from Boeing and had no other means for acquiring information concerning Boeing’s relationship with the relevant buildings, they would meet this stringent test. In light of our conclusion that summary judgment was improperly granted, the district court will have the benefit of the holding we have already made about the evidence when re-evaluating the need for discovery.”
Williams v. Boeing Company, No.18-31158, 2022 WL 110247 (5th Cir. Jan. 12, 2022).