State Court vs. Federal – Weighing the pros and cons.
Typically, whenever possible, asbestos cases are filed in state court. A procedural defense tactic being implemented with increasing frequency is to have the case moved to Federal court.
The Plaintiff determines where the case is to be filed.
In state court, the plaintiff has the potential to recover punitive damages. The case is generally heard more expeditiously. Because plaintiffs’ lawyers choose where to file lawsuits, they have an opportunity to file in states that have particularly favorable legal rules. Approximately 80 percent of asbestos cases are filed in state court.
The right to have the case removed or heard in federal court is the exclusive right of the Defendant or Defendants.
In federal court, all cases filed since 1990 have been assigned to one judge in Philadelphia. This process was established to adjudicate the overwhelming number of asbestos claims. It is now known as the Multi District Litigation (or MDL). Not once has this judge allowed a case to be tried for punitive damages. Cases in federal court typically take much longer to go to trial and can be left inactive for significant periods of time.
The Defendant can move to have the case removed to federal court for several reasons. In asbestos cases, the principal grounds for removal are the Federal Enclave Clause and federal officer removal. The Federal Enclave Clause authorizes Congress to exercise exclusive legislation “over all places purchased by consent of the legislature of the state in which the same shall be, for the erection of forts, magazines, arsenals, dock-yards, and other needful things.” Basically, this puts any exposure that occurred at shipyards, military bases and the like under federal jurisdiction.
The federal officer removal statute provides in pertinent part that “[a]ny officer of the United States or agency thereof, or person acting under him, for any act under color of such office . . .” may remove a civil action or criminal proceeding commenced against him in a State Court to the district court of the United States for the district and division embracing the place wherein it is pending. Manufacturers who provided asbestos containing products to federal agencies, such as the military, claim that they were operating as a federal contractor and thus a federal officer was involved in the business.
Plaintiffs can attempt to thwart these efforts by dismissing the defendant who sought to have the case removed and then request the court remand the case. Or, they can stipulate that the plaintiff is only proceeding against the removing defendant on state law claims thus nullifying the basis for federal jurisdiction.
Recently, United Technologies Corp. (UTC) succeeded in removing two pending asbestos cases based on the U.S. Codes federal officer removal provision. The Plaintiffs in these cases were exposed at military bases. CBS ‘s predecessor-in-interest, Westinghouse was also successful in both getting and keeping their case in federal court claiming that, because their products were delivered to an agency of the United States Government, they were operating as a federal contractor and thus a federal officer was involved in the business.