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Savoie v. Huntington Ingalls, Inc.

United States District Court, E.D. Louisiana

June 10, 2019

LORITA SAVOIE, ET AL.
v.
HUNTINGTON INGALLS, INC., ET AL.

         SECTION: J(3)

          DOUGLAS, MAG. JUDGE

          ORDER & REASONS

          BARBIER, JUDGE

         This is an asbestos exposure case. Plaintiffs are the wife and children of Joseph B. Savoie, Jr. (“Savoie”), who died from mesothelioma. Before the Court is defendant Avondale's[1] Renewed Motion for Partial Summary Judgment to Establish the Settlements of Certain Non-Parties. (Rec. Doc. 280), Plaintiffs' opposition (Rec. Doc. 344), and Avondale's reply (Rec. Doc. 478). Avondale seeks to establish that Savoie entered into eight settlements that released multiple entities from liability for his mesothelioma, even though those settlements occurred over a decade before he was diagnosed with that disease. After considering the parties' arguments, the summary judgment record, and the applicable law, the Court holds for reasons explained below that five of the releases included Savoie's mesothelioma claim, and three did not. Accordingly, the Court grants in part and denies in part Avondale's motion.

         BACKGROUND

         Savoie worked at Avondale Shipyards from approximately 1948 through 1995. In 1990, Savoie was diagnosed with asbestosis-a respiratory disease that involves scarring of lung tissue caused by inhalation of asbestos particles. See Rando v. Anco Insulations Inc., 2008-1163 (La. 5/22/09), 16 So.3d 1065, 1073 n.4 (defining asbestosis). In 1991, Savoie and nearly 3, 000 other plaintiffs sued multiple defendants for their asbestos-related injuries in In Re Asbestos Plaintiffs v. Borden, No. 91-18397, which was filed in Orleans Parish Civil District Court (“the Borden case”). For Savoie, that litigation resulted in multiple settlements during the 1990s and the early 2000s.

         Years later, Savoie became “one of those tragically unlucky victims whose exposure to asbestos eventually evolved into mesothelioma.” Hymel v. Eagle, Inc., 2008-1287 (La.App. 4 Cir. 3/18/09), 7 So.3d 1249, 1251. Mesothelioma is a type of cancer that usually begins in the pleura, the membrane that surrounds the lungs and lines the wall of the chest cavity. Rando, 16 So.3d at 1072 & n.1. Savoie was diagnosed with mesothelioma on July 17, 2014. About a month later, he filed the instant action against Avondale and other defendants, claiming his mesothelioma was caused by exposure to asbestos at Avondale Shipyards. Savoie passed away on September 15, 2014. His wife and children were substituted as plaintiffs, and the petition was amended to assert survival and wrongful death claims.

         During the course of this litigation, Avondale subpoenaed the Wilson Law Firm-Savoie's attorneys during the Borden case[2]-for copies of Savoie's settlement agreements. The subpoena stated that the documents “may have any amounts paid pursuant to any settlement or compromise deleted.” (Rec. Doc. 280-2 at 2-3). The law firm responded by producing seventeen release documents with the settlement amounts redacted. (See Ex. 1 to Avondale's Mot. for Summ. J., Rec. Doc. 280-2).

         Avondale filed the instant motion for partial summary judgment contending that eight of the seventeen releases discharged not only Savoie's contemporaneous asbestosis claim, but all future claims for asbestos-related illnesses, including mesothelioma, against thirty-one entities. Avondale does not claim to be one of the releasees, however. Rather, its eventual goal is to use these releases as a basis for claiming virile-share credits against any judgment that may be rendered against it, provided it can prove at trial that the releasees are actually at fault for causing Savoie's mesothelioma. This is further explained in the margin.[3] Plaintiffs raise multiple arguments in opposition, most of which fall into one of two categories: (1) Avondale has not shown that the release documents constitute enforceable settlements, and, (2) even if the releases are enforceable in a general sense, they did not compromise Savoie's future claim for mesothelioma.

         LEGAL STANDARD

         Summary judgment is appropriate where the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Little v. Liquid Air Corp., 37 F.3d 1069, 1075 (5th Cir. 1994); Fed.R.Civ.P. 56. The moving party bears the initial burden of demonstrating to the court that there is an absence of genuine factual issues. Id. Once the moving party meets that burden, the non-moving party must go beyond the pleadings and designate facts showing that there is a genuine issue of material fact in dispute. Id. “A factual dispute is ‘genuine' where a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the non-moving party. If the record, taken as a whole, could not lead a rational trier of fact to find for the non-moving party, then there is no genuine issue for trial and summary judgment is proper.” Weber v. Roadway Exp., Inc., 199 F.3d 270, 272 (5th Cir. 2000) (citations omitted). The non-moving party's burden “is not satisfied with ‘some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts,' by ‘conclusory allegations,' by ‘unsubstantiated assertions,' or by only a ‘scintilla' of evidence. [The courts] resolve factual controversies in favor of the nonmoving party, but only when there is an actual controversy, that is, when both parties have submitted evidence of contradictory facts. [Courts] do not, however, in the absence of any proof, assume that the nonmoving party could or would prove the necessary facts.” Little, 37 F.3d at 1075 (emphasis omitted)(citations omitted).

         DISCUSSION

         The discussion is divided into three parts. First, Louisiana law regarding release of future claims is reviewed. Second, the Court examines the language of each release to determine if any included Savoie's future claim for mesothelioma. This part also discusses Plaintiffs' arguments which are specific to a particular release. The third part addresses Plaintiffs' arguments that apply to all of the releases.

         A. Law Regarding Release of Future Claims

         There is no dispute that Savoie was diagnosed with asbestosis but not mesothelioma at the time he executed the subject releases. Mesothelioma would not manifest until thirteen years after the last release was signed. The core issue, then, is whether Savoie released a future claim for mesothelioma when he executed these releases.

         “A compromise is a contract whereby the parties, through concessions made by one or more of them, settle a dispute or an uncertainty concerning an obligation or other legal relationship.” La. Civ. Code art. 3071.[4] The burden is on the party interposing the release to establish the requisites for a valid compromise, including the parties' intent to settle their differences in the action. Brown v. Drillers, Inc., 93- 1019 (La. 1/14/94), 630 So.2d 741, 754; but cf. Hymel, infra. “A compromise settles only those differences that the parties clearly intended to settle, including the necessary consequences of what they express.” La. Civ. Code art. 3076. While Louisiana law does not prohibit parties from settling potential future claims that may arise from a past breach of duty, “releases of future actions are narrowly construed to assure that the parties fully understand the rights released and the resulting consequences.” Brown, 630 So.2d at 754. “[I]f the release instrument leaves any doubt as to whether a particular future action is covered by the compromise, it should be construed not to cover such future action.” Id.

         Brown explained that “the meaning and intent of the parties to a written instrument, including a compromise, is ordinarily determined from the four corners of the instrument, and extrinsic (parol) evidence is inadmissible either to explain or to contradict the terms of the instrument.” Id. at 748. However, “a general release will not necessarily bar recovery for those aspects of a claim not intended by the parties to be covered by the release.” Id. at 749. When a party produces “substantiating evidence of mistaken intent, ” a court may look beyond the four corners of the instrument to ascertain intent. Id. Absent such evidence, however, courts “have not hesitated to confine their analysis to the four corners of the instrument.” Id. at 750.

         Two post-Brown decisions by Louisiana intermediate appellate courts provide useful guideposts. In Breaux v. Mine Safety Appliances Co., 98-133 (La.App. 5 Cir. 8/25/98), 717 So.2d 1255, the plaintiff sued for asbestosis in 1982. Around that time, the plaintiff's doctors informed him that he did not have asbestosis. In 1983, the plaintiff executed a release in favor of the defendant in exchange for $500. The document stated that the plaintiff released the defendant “from any and all claims ... or disabilities of any nature whatsoever, including but not restricted to asbestosis, silicosis and/or pneumonoconiosis, past, present or future, and any and all other claims, past, present or future arising out of . . . occupational diseases contracted while employed at or by [defendant].” Id. at 1257. Thirteen years later, the plaintiff developed mesothelioma and sued the same defendant again. The Louisiana Fifth Circuit held that the previous release did not bar the plaintiff's current mesothelioma claim, explaining:

Although the agreement refers to “disabilities of any nature”, “past, present or future, ” “arising out of or in any manner whatsoever connected with or resulting from, either directly or indirectly, injury sustained or occupational diseases contracted while employed at or by [the defendant], ” it is not logical to expect that plaintiff intended to release defendant for the future manifestation of this type of cancer for $500. This is a terrible disease. If the agreement intended to include mesothelioma, defendant would surely have included it in the listed diseases. As plaintiff argues, this settlement was a nuisance settlement. Thus, we find that the language of the agreement does not include the contraction of this type of cancer which would not manifest for many years, nor did plaintiff intend to include it in the settlement. Plaintiff signed the agreement expressly because he did not have any of the asbestos related diseases at that time.

Id.

         The Louisiana Fourth Circuit reached the opposite result in Hymel v. Eagle, Inc., 2008-1287 (La.App. 4 Cir. 3/18/09), 7 So.3d 1249. In that case, the plaintiff was diagnosed with asbestosis in 1993, sued the same year, and then executed a release in 1998 in exchange for $15, 000. The release stated:

It is further understood and agreed that the aforementioned provisions are intended to release and forever discharge the released parties from any and all liability on account of or in any way growing out of occupational diseases or conditions attributable to exposure to asbestos . . . including . . . any future or consequential condition or injury, including but not limited to death, mesothelioma, cancer, shortness of breath, fear of cancer or increased risk of cancer . . . .

Id. at 1252 (emphasis added in Hymel). Years later, the plaintiff developed mesothelioma and sued the same defendant again. The court held that the prior release “clearly and unambiguously compromised any prospective claims that the plaintiff might have for mesothelioma or cancer.” Id. at 1258. The court distinguished the facts before it from those considered in Breaux, noting:

(1) the settlement specifically covered both mesothelioma and cancer by name, (2) the plaintiff had an asbestos related disease at the time he signed the settlement (asbestosis); (3) it was for a sum thirty time[s] greater than the settlement in Breaux and, therefore, cannot be characterized as a “nuisance settlement”; and (4) there is no indication in Breaux that the plaintiff had the potential to recover additional sums from other defendants as there is in the instant case.

Id. at 1254 (emphasis in original). Hymel further explained:

Where a settlement and release refer expressly to the claim sought to be released by the party seeking to enforce the settlement, that alone is sufficient to shift the burden to the party seeking to oppose the enforcement of the settlement and release to prove that there was no meeting of the minds or that there was fraud or ill practices. It is not sufficient to raise the issue to merely make the self-serving allegation that there was no meeting of the minds. A party represented by counsel may not defeat a written settlement and release that is unambiguous on its face by merely alleging that he did not understand it. Otherwise, no settlement would be enforceable without more litigation which defeats the whole public policy favoring settlements. Signatures on documents are not mere ornaments. . . . There is little incentive to settle if a party to the settlement agreement may later seek to void it based merely on his self-serving statements, without more, and in the absence of any evidence of fraud or ill practices, that he misunderstood what he signed or that he did not intend to sign what he signed.

Id. at 1257-58 (citations omitted).

         With this background in mind, the Court turns to the language in the eight releases.

         B. The Eight Releases

         1. Champion Release

         In the Champion Release, dated March 20, 1996, Savoie and his wife released:

Champion International Corporation, and its predecessor U.S. Plywood Corporation . . . from any and all claims . . . which we now may have or in the future may have against Champion . . . in any manner arising out of or in any way connected with . . . the alleged exposure of the Injured Person to various asbestos-containing materials . . . as well as any and all consequences thereof, whether heretofore or hereafter accrued or whether known or unknown to the Claimants . . . .
. . .
We understand that the Injured Person now may be suffering from or, in the future, may suffer from asbestos-related diseases or injuries (such as cancer or mesothelioma) . . . which diseases and/or injuries may not have manifested themselves at the present time. It is our intention and agreement that any claims against Champion, of any kind or character whatsoever, which we might have for, and/or arising out of or related to, any such asbestos-related diseases and injuries and/or death, are the subject of this Release and are hereby released.

(Rec. Doc. 280-2 at 38-39)(emphasis added).

         The Court finds that the Champion Release, like the release in Hymel, supra, clearly and unambiguously released Savoie's future claim for mesothelioma (i.e., the survival claims asserted in this action). Not only does it generally release “all claims . . . which we . . . in the future may have against Champion . . . whether heretofore or hereafter accrued or whether known or unknown to the Claimants, ” it specifically releases future claims for “cancer or mesothelioma.” While the burden was initially on Avondale to show that a future claim for mesothelioma was within the scope of this release, see Brown, 630 So.2d at 747, “[w]here a settlement and release refer expressly to the claim sought to be released by the party seeking to enforce the settlement, that alone is sufficient to shift the burden to the party seeking to oppose the enforcement of the settlement and release to prove that there was no meeting of the minds or that there was fraud or ill practices, ” Hymel, 7 So.3d at 1257. ...


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