In a decision, dated September 7, 2017, in Rice v. American Talc Co., No. FBT CV-15-6053658-S (9/7/17), the Hon. Barbara N. Bellis of the Connecticut Superior Court of Fairfield at Bridgeport, who presides over the asbestos docket, ruled that the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Daimler AG v. Bauman did not preclude Connecticut from exercising specific jurisdiction over Milwhite, Inc., a Texas-based talc mining company. To better understand the court’s ruling, the undisputed facts are set forth briefly here:
- Ernest Rice, Jr, plaintiff’s decedent, worked at American Standard’s plumbing fixtures plant in Connecticut from 1962-1968 and alleges exposure to asbestos-containing talc (and other products) during the course of his employment.
- Decedent later worked as a painter in the 1970’s where he was allegedly exposed to asbestos-containing products, such as joint compounds and caulk, although plaintiff did not allege an exposure to asbestos-containing talc during his years working as a painter in opposing defendant’s motion to dismiss.
- Defendant did not acquire the rights to mine the allegedly asbestos-containing talc until 1971, some three years after the decedent left his employment at American Standard.
- Defendant made no sales to any company in Connecticut since 1977 and those sales did not comprise more than one-tenth of one percent of its sales in any year.
In this author’s view, dismissing the case against Milwhite should have been a “no-brainer”. Milwhite argued persuasively that the decedent’s injuries could not have arisen out of any transaction by the defendant in Connecticut because it did not obtain the rights to mine the allegedly asbestos-containing talc until several years after the decedent left American Standard’s employ. Although plaintiff’s counsel failed to raise the possibility, however remote, that the decedent could have possibly come into contact with the defendant’s talc while working as a painter years later, Judge Bellis found that the only circumstance necessary to establish specific jurisdiction (apart from having a sympathetic plaintiff) was the shipment to Connecticut of de minimis product, unrelated to any toxic exposure, over 40 years ago.
In pertinent part, Justice Bellis reasoned:
“Even though the undisputed evidence implies that the defendant began shipping its products to Connecticut a year after the plaintiff’s decedent stopped working at the Wauregan plant, the evidence also shows that the defendant shipped its products to the state during the 1970s, which is the period when the plaintiff’s decedent allegedly was exposed to defendant’s asbestos-containing products while working as a painter. Accordingly, the plaintiff’s allegations and evidence show that the defendant has minimum contacts with Connecticut sufficient to allow this court to exert personal jurisdiction over it.” (emphasis in original)
Although the court specifically refused to interwine the jurisdictional issues with the merits of the case, there is nothing to suggest that any product ever shipped by the defendant and sold in Connecticut was in any way defective. Indeed, Bellis points out that the long-arm statute in General Statutes Section 33-929 (f)(3) “does not require that the actual good claimed to be defective be sold in Connecticut,” citing a 1993 Superior Court decision by the Hon. Beverly Hodgson.
This may have been good law 25 years ago, when Justice Hodgson drafted the words quoted by Justice Bellis in her ruling, but it has clearly not been the law of the land since the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision, earlier this year, in Bristol-Myers Squibb v. Superior Court of California, 137 S.Ct. 1773 (2017), In that decision, the court uncoupled the sometimes confusing concepts of general jurisdiction and specific jurisdiction. Although the requirements for specific jurisdiction are less stringent than those for general jurisdiction, the high court made clear that specific jurisdiction is “case-linked”. Writing for the majority, Justice Alito rejected the California Supreme Court’s “sliding scale” approach to evaluating specific jurisdiction “as a loose and spurious form of general jurisdiction,” which allowed consideration of the defendant’s unrelated forum contacts to “relax” the required “case-link” between the plaintiff’s claim and the defendant’s contacts.
This is precisely the error that Justice Bellis appears to have committed in denying Milwhite’s motion to dismiss. It is worse enough for a blameless Texas mining company to be hauled into a multi-defendant mass tort asbestos case in Connecticut in the first instance. But It is worse still for the court to submit that company to jurisdiction, and the attendant legal fees and liability exposure, in connection with an injury that even the trial court knows it had nothing to do with.