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Asbestos-Superior Court Holds Valve Manufacturer Subject To Jurisdictional Discovery

The Superior Court has held that an asbestos plaintiff who admits she cannot demonstrate general personal jurisdiction over the defendant is entitled to conduct jurisdictional discovery to determine whether there are sufficient facts to establish specific personal jurisdiction. Moreover, plaintiff can conduct the discovery with respect to the entire period her decedent worked at the jobsite where defendant's products were located, not just for the period decedent worked with the defendant's products.

Plaintiff's decedent worked at the same jobsite in Rhode Island for over thirty years. Defendants' valves were present at the jobsite and decedent worked with them for about five years. Plaintiff argued that she should be allowed to conduct jurisdictional discovery with respect to the entire period that decedent worked at the jobsite to attempt to establish specific personal jurisdiction. Defendant argued that plaintiff should not be allowed to conduct jurisdictional discovery but even she could, it should be limited to the period decedent worked with its products.

The Court reviewed Rhode Island law respecting personal jurisdiction. Rhode Island court exercise personal jurisdiction to the full extent of the Due Process Clause. Specific personal jurisdiction exists when plaintiff demonstrates that "the claim sufficiently relates to or arises from any of a defendant's purposeful contacts with the forum." There are no "readily discernible guidelines" for a court to determine which and how many contacts are sufficient, the court must engage in a case-by-case inquiry as to the "quality and quantity of [the defendant's] contacts with the forum." Plaintiff must show defendant "purposefully avail[ed] itself of the privilege of conducting activities within [Rhode Island], thus invoking the benefits and protections of its laws." Mere foreseeability that a defendant's products may enter the state through the stream of commerce is not sufficient. Rather, plaintiff must show defendant targeted the Rhode Island market.

In addition, a plaintiff may conduct discovery of defendant's jurisdictional contacts when "...a more satisfactory showing of the facts is necessary" to determine whether jurisdiction is proper. Here, defendant has only provided information respecting its jurisdictional contacts during the five year period with which decedent worked with its products. However, because asbestosis is contracted through inhalation of asbestos fibers, decedent may have been exposed to defendant's products even when he did not work with defendant's products. Accordingly, plaintiff can conduct discovery of defendant's contacts for the entire period as well as some time period before decedent started working at the jobsite.

Cary v. American Optical Corp., P.C. 10-3263 (R.I. Super. Sept. 30, 2013)

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