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Wannall v. Honeywell International, Inc.

United States District Court, District Circuit

May 14, 2013

STEPHEN A. WANNALL, as the personal representative of the Estate of John M. Tyler, Plaintiff,
v.
HONEYWELL INTERNATIONAL, INC., f/k/a Allied Signal, Inc., Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

BERYL A. HOWELL, District Judge.

This is a products liability case involving allegations that the defendant's automobile brakes, containing chrysotile asbestos fibers, caused the decedent's lung cancer.[1] This case is set for trial on May 20, 2013, and among the thirty pre-trial motions filed is a motion to reconsider the denial of the defendant's motion for summary judgment.[2] See Def.'s Mot. for Recons., ECF No. 49. The primary basis for that motion is the intervening decision in Ford Motor Co. v. Boomer, 736 S.E.2d 724 (Va. 2013), in which the Supreme Court of Virginia abrogated the "substantial contributing factor" test as an appropriate articulation of proximate cause under Virginia tort law. See Def.'s Mem. Supp. Mot. for Recons. ("Def.'s Recons. Mem.") at 1, 14, ECF No. 49-1. In opposition to the defendant's motion for reconsideration, the plaintiff submitted a revised expert report, which the plaintiff argued creates a genuine issue of material fact for trial on causation. The defendant subsequently moved to strike that declaration on a number of grounds. For the reasons explained below, the Court grants both motions of the defendant to strike the revised expert report and for summary judgment in its favor.

I. BACKGROUND

An exhaustive recitation of the factual background of this case is not necessary to understand the Court's reasoning on the two motions considered in this opinion. Therefore, the Court will limit its summary of the background to the facts bearing on those two motions.

As referenced above, the decedent died on July 28, 2010 from malignant pleural mesothelioma-a form of lung cancer. See Am. Joint Pretrial Statement ("Pretrial Statement") at 2, ECF No. 133. The plaintiff claims that the decedent's lung cancer was caused by exposure to chrysotile asbestos fibers contained in automobile brakes manufactured by Bendix Corporation.[3] Id. As the defendant concedes "it is undisputed that... [the decedent] performed shade tree automobile repairs, which to some extent included brake repairs." Def.'s Recons. Mem. at 2. The term "shade tree automobile repairs" refers to the fact that, although he was not licensed as a mechanic, the decedent "did work on automobiles for [himself], [his] family and the neighborhood whenever they asked [him] to do it, " which included "changing batteries, changing starter motors, generators, alternators, tires and brakes." Def.'s Recons. Mem. Ex. B ("Tyler Dep.") at 399:1-8, 400:3-5, ECF No. 49-3. The parties dispute the precise extent to which the decedent was exposed to asbestos fibers from Bendix brakes, though the decedent testified in his de benne esse deposition that he filed and beveled "hundreds and hundreds" of Bendix brake shoes in his lifetime. See id. at 416:13. The decedent further testified that he customarily used Bendix brakes, and he would ask for Bendix brakes by name "because [he] liked their product." See id. at 413:10-19.

Both before and during his "shade tree mechanic" work, the decedent was also exposed to asbestos when he served in the Navy and when he worked as a trades helper at Fort Belvoir in Fairfax County, Virgnia. See Def.'s Recons. Mem. at 3-9. In fact, the plaintiff not only concedes that the decedent was exposed to asbestos in the Navy, but he also concedes that "[the decedent]'s exposure to asbestos during his Naval service caused his mesothelioma." See Pl.'s Mot. to File Second Am. Joint Pretrial Statement at 1, ECF No. 135. In light of the decedent's Naval and Fort Belvoir asbestos exposure, there are at least three potential causes of the decedent's cancer: the Naval exposure, the Fort Belvoir exposure, and the Bendix brake exposure.

The decedent and his wife originally filed this lawsuit on December 31, 2009 in D.C. Superior Court against thirty-six separate defendants. See Notice of Removal at 1-7, ECF No. 1. The case was removed to this Court on March 3, 2010, see id., and on June 23, 2011, the case was transferred to the Eastern District of Pennsylvania (the "MDL Court") by the Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation for coordinated pretrial proceedings, see Conditional Transfer Order at 1, ECF No. 43. On November 5, 2012, after the conclusion of all pretrial proceedings, the case was remanded to this Court for trial. See Conditional Remand Order at 1, ECF No. 44. By that time, the only remaining viable defendants for trial were John Crane, Inc. and Honeywell International, Inc. ("Honeywell"). See Suggestion of Remand at 2, ECF No. 44-3.[4] While this case was pending in the MDL Court, the defendant moved for summary judgment on the plaintiff's claims. See Def.'s Recons. Mem. Ex. M at 1, ECF No. 49-14. In denying that motion, the MDL Court cited the decedent's deposition testimony as well as the testimony of the plaintiff's experts "that [the decedent]'s exposure to Bendix brakes [was] a substantial cause of his mesothelioma." Id. at 4. Specifically, the MDL Court cited the testimony of Dr. Steven Markowitz, who opined that the decedent's exposure to Bendix brakes "was significant and contributed to his over-all exposure, [and] that his mesothelioma was caused by his cumulative exposure to asbestos.'" Id. (quoting Pl.'s Resp. to Honeywell's Mot. for Summ. J. at 12). In the end, the MDL Court denied summary judgment to the defendant because "Plaintiff has raised a genuine issue of fact as to whether Honeywell's products, specifically, were a substantial contributing factor in causing Decedent's injuries." Id.

On January 10, 2013, however, after this case was remanded to this Court, the Virginia Supreme Court decided Boomer. That case was an appeal "of a jury verdict against Honeywell International Incorporated and Ford Motor Company for the wrongful death of James D. Lokey, caused by mesothelioma resulting from exposure to asbestos in dust from Bendix brakes installed in Ford and other vehicles." Boomer, 736 S.E.2d at 726. The similarity between Boomer and the instant case is therefore self-evident. In Boomer, the trial court "on five occasions instructed the jury to determine whether [the defendants'] negligence was a substantial contributing factor' to Lokey's mesothelioma, " and the defendants challenged that instruction as contrary to Virginia law. Id. at 727-28. The Virginia Supreme Court, "[c]onsidering it... for the first time, " rejected the "substantial contributing factor" instruction primarily because "a reasonable juror could be confused as to the quantum of evidence required to prove causation in the face of both a substantial contributing factor and a proximate cause instruction." Id. at 730. Nevertheless, the court also held, in agreement with a prior line of Virginia precedent, that a plaintiff could still recover from a defendant in a multiple-exposure asbestos case if the plaintiff could prove "that a negligent [asbestos] exposure was more likely than not sufficient to have triggered the harm." Id. at 731 (emphasis in original).

On January 28, 2013-less than three weeks after Boomer was decided-the defendant filed a motion to reconsider the denial of its motion for summary judgment in light of Boomer. See Def.'s Mot. for Recons. In that motion, the defendant argued that summary judgment is appropriate in light of Boomer because the plaintiff "has failed to provide any specific evidence that [the decedent]'s alleged exposure to Bendix brakes... was a sufficient cause of his injury." Def.'s Recons. Mem. at 17. On this same point, the defendant argued that "Plaintiff's own experts contend that [the decedent]'s exposure to Bendix brakes was merely part of his cumulative exposure to asbestos and cause of [the decedent]'s disease." Id. After reviewing the testimony and opinions of the plaintiff's experts-in particular Dr. Markowitz, the plaintiff's primary causation expert-the defendant argued that "Plaintiff has not offered expert evidence to opine that [the decedent]'s alleged lifetime dosage is more likely than not a sufficient cause of his mesothelioma" and "Plaintiff has offered no evidence to quantify [the decedent]'s exposure to Bendix brakes." Id. at 19 (emphasis in original). In light of Boomer and these perceived deficiencies in the plaintiff's evidence, the defendant contended that the plaintiff "cannot create a genuine issue of material fact regarding any alleged liability of Honeywell." Id. at 20.

In opposing the defendant's motion for reconsideration, the plaintiff made several arguments, some of which will be discussed in more detail below. Importantly, one of the plaintiff's arguments was that "[e]xpert testimony demonstrates that the exposure to Bendix brake dust described by [the decedent] is sufficient to cause [the decedent]'s mesothelioma." Pl's Opp'n to Def.'s Mot. for Recons. ("Pl.'s Recons. Opp'n") at 7, ECF No. 53. This statement was based on a declaration by Dr. Markowitz, completed on February 8, 2013, after the defendant had filed its motion for reconsideration. See id. In that new declaration, Dr. Markowitz offered four "additional opinions, " one of which was that "[the decedent]'s exposure to asbestos from Bendix asbestos-containing brake lining-as well as the non-friction exposures identified in my report of November 22, 2011 [sic] (Naval and Fort Belvoir exposures)-are each independently sufficient to cause mesothelioma in and of themselves." Pl.'s Recons. Opp'n Ex. 3 ("Markowitz Decl."), at 5-6, ECF No. 53-3 (emphasis added). Dr. Markowitz had never before opined that the decedent's exposure to Bendix brakes was independently sufficient to have caused his cancer. The plaintiff, in his opposition, also pointed to the deposition testimony of the plaintiff's pathology expert, Dr. Jerrold Abraham, who opined that "if [the decedent] had only that [Navy exposure], that would have been the only cause. If he had other exposures [ i.e., brake exposures] and not that [Navy exposure], those [brake exposures] would have been the only cause." See Pl.'s Recons. Opp'n at 8 (internal quotation marks omitted) (quoting Ex. 5 ("Abraham Dep."), at 135-37, ECF No. 53-5).

In response to the submission of the February 8, 2013 Markowitz Declaration, the defendant filed a motion to strike the declaration as both untimely and inconsistent with Dr. Markowitz's prior opinions. See Def.'s Reply to Pl.'s Opp'n to Def.'s Mot. for Recons. & Mot. to Strike Decl. of Dr. Steven Markowitz ("Def.'s Strike Mem.") at 2-5, ECF No. 57. Specifically, the defendant argued that (1) the Markowitz Declaration is untimely under Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 26 and 37; and (2) the Markowitz Declaration constitutes a "sham affidavit" because it contradicts his prior sworn statements. See id. at 4. In the alternative, the defendant also contended that the new Markowitz Declaration "does not satisfy the standard under Boomer " because it "lacks any support as to the level of exposure [the decedent] allegedly experienced or that this particular level of exposure was sufficient to cause mesothelioma." Id. at 9.

Upon consideration of this briefing, the Court directed the parties to file supplemental briefing on May 1, 2013 to clarify a variety of questions relating to the motion for reconsideration and the motion to strike. See Order dated Apr. 25, 2013, ECF No. 144; see also Def.'s Supplemental Briefing, ECF No. 149; Pl.'s Supplemental Briefing, ECF No. 150. Additionally, on May 3, 2013, the Court heard oral argument on both motions during the pretrial conference in this matter. After this extensive briefing and oral argument, the Court must now consider the proper disposition of the defendant's motion for reconsideration and motion to strike. As discussed below, the Court grants both motions.

II. LEGAL STANDARDS

A. Amending Interlocutory Decisions

"Denial of a summary judgment motion is an interlocutory order" and "[d]istrict courts have discretion to entertain successive summary judgment motions on the same (or different) grounds." 3 WILLIAM W. SCHWARZER ET AL, FEDERAL CIVIL PROCEDURE BEFORE TRIAL § 14:367 (2013) (emphasis in original). Indeed, a district court may revise any of its interlocutory decisions "at any time before the entry of a judgment adjudicating all the claims and all the parties' rights and liabilities." FED. R. CIV. P. 54(b); accord Langevine v. District of Columbia, 106 F.3d 1018, 1023 (D.C. Cir. 1997) ("Interlocutory orders are not subject to the law of the case doctrine and may always be reconsidered prior to final judgment."). Rule 54(b) "recognizes [the district court's] inherent power to reconsider an interlocutory order as justice requires.'" Capitol Sprinkler Inspection, Inc. v. Guest Servs., Inc., 630 F.3d 217, 227 (D.C. Cir. 2011) (quoting Greene v. Union Mut. Life Ins. Co. of Am., 764 F.2d 19, 22-23 (1st Cir. 1985)). To determine whether "justice requires" reconsideration, a court may consider, among other possible grounds, whether "a controlling or significant change in the law or facts has occurred since the submission of the issue to the court.'" Act Now to Stop War & End Racism Coal. v. District of Columbia (" Act Now "), 286 F.R.D. 117, 125 (D.D.C. 2012) (quoting Estate of Botvin ex rel. Ellis v. Islamic Republic of Iran, 772 F.Supp.2d 218, 223 (D.D.C. 2011)).

"Importantly, the standard for reconsideration of interlocutory orders under Rule 54(b) is distinct from the standard applicable to motions for reconsideration of final judgments." Cobell v. Norton, 224 F.R.D. 266, 272 (D.D.C. 2004). Despite the imprecision of the "as justice requires" standard, "it is clear that courts have more flexibility in applying Rule 54(b)' than in determining whether reconsideration is appropriate under Rules 59(e) and 60(b)." Id. (quoting Moore v. Hartman, 332 F.Supp.2d 252, 256 (D.D.C. 2004)). The considerations embedded in the "as justice requires" standard "leave a great deal of room for the court's discretion and, accordingly, the as justice requires' standard amounts to determining whether [relief upon] reconsideration is necessary under the relevant circumstances.'" Elec. Privacy Info. Ctr. v. U.S. Dep't of Homeland Sec., 811 F.Supp.2d 216, 224 (D.D.C. 2011) (quoting Cobell, 224 F.R.D. at 272). Despite the potential breadth of the "as justice requires" standard, "the court's discretion under Rule 54(b) is... subject to the caveat that, where litigants have once battled for the court's decision, they should neither be required, nor without good reason permitted, to battle for it again.'" Id. (quoting Singh v. George Wash. Univ., 383 F.Supp.2d 99, 101 (D.D.C. 2005)); see also 3 SCHWARZER ET AL, FEDERAL CIVIL PROCEDURE BEFORE TRIAL § 14:368 (successive summary judgment motion that "presents no new material facts or legal arguments... may even be treated as a bad faith' motion, exposing the moving party to sanctions under FRCP 56(h)" (emphasis omitted)).

B. Summary Judgment

Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56 provides that summary judgment shall be granted "if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." FED. R. CIV. P. 56(a). Summary judgment is properly granted against a party who, "after adequate time for discovery and upon motion, ... fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial." Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). The burden is on the moving party to demonstrate that there is an "absence of a genuine issue of material fact" in dispute. Id. at 323.

In ruling on a motion for summary judgment, the Court must draw all justifiable inferences in favor of the nonmoving party and shall accept the nonmoving party's evidence as true. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255 (1986). For a factual dispute to be "genuine, " the nonmoving party must establish more than "[t]he mere existence of a scintilla of evidence in support of [its] position, " id. at 252, and cannot rely on "mere allegations" or conclusory statements, see Veitch v. England, 471 F.3d 124, 134 (D.C. Cir. 2006); Greene v. Dalton, 164 F.3d 671, 675 (D.C. Cir. 1999); Harding v. Gray, 9 F.3d 150, 154 (D.C. Cir. 1993); accord FED. R. CIV. P. 56(e). Rather, the nonmoving party must present specific facts that would enable a reasonable jury to find in its favor. See, e.g., FED. R. CIV. P. 56(c)(1). "If the evidence is merely colorable, or is not significantly probative, summary judgment may be granted." Liberty Lobby, 477 U.S. at 249-50 (citations omitted). "[A] complete failure of proof concerning an essential element of the nonmoving party's case necessarily renders all other facts immaterial." Celotex, 477 U.S. at 323. In that situation, "[t]he moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law' because the nonmoving party has failed to make a sufficient showing on an essential element of her case with respect to which she has the burden of proof." Id.

III. DISCUSSION

Before addressing the merits of either motion, the Court will first discuss two procedural issues raised by the plaintiff with respect to the motion for reconsideration. Next, the Court will discuss the merits of the defendant's motion to strike, since the resolution of that motion bears upon the merits of the motion for reconsideration. Finally, the Court will address the merits of the motion for reconsideration.

A. The Motion for Reconsideration Is Procedurally Sound.

In his opposition to the defendant's motion for reconsideration, the plaintiff contends that the "motion is procedurally defective for two reasons." Pl.'s Recons. Opp'n at 2. First, the plaintiff argues that "Honeywell's twenty-two (22) page Memorandum of Law exceeds this Court's explicit direction that motions for reconsideration may not exceed 10 pages in length.'" Id. at 2-3 (quoting Supplemental Standing Order § 7, ECF No. 45). This argument, however, misperceives the Court's directive. The Court's Standing Order states that "[m]otions to alter or amend a judgment.... shall be filed only when the requirements of Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 59(c) and/or 60(b) are met" and "[s]uch motions and oppositions thereto may not exceed 10 pages in length." Supplemental Standing Order § 7. Although this portion of the Court's Standing Order correctly states that motions to alter or amend a judgment are "commonly known as motions for reconsideration, '" see id., a motion to reconsider under Rule 54(b) is not a motion to alter or amend a judgment. A "judgment, " as that term is used throughout the Federal Rules (including in Rules 59(e) and 60(b)), "includes a decree and any order from which an appeal lies, " see FED. R. CIV. P. 54(a), which would necessarily not include an interlocutory order (such as an order denying a motion for summary judgment). Indeed, Rule 54(b) makes clear the distinction between an interlocutory order and a judgment, providing that "any order or other decision ... that adjudicates fewer than all the claims or the rights and liabilities of fewer than all the parties does not end the action as to any of the claims or parties and may be revised at any time before the entry of judgment. " FED. R. CIV. P. 54(b) (emphasis added). Therefore, the page limitations that the Court applies to motions to alter or amend a judgment do not apply to the defendant's instant motion for reconsideration under Rule 54(b).

Second, the plaintiff contends that "Honeywell's motion is almost two years too late." Pl.'s Recons. Opp'n at 3. The premise for this assertion is that "Honeywell's only excuse for filing this motion so late is that there was an intervening change in law.'" Id. (quoting Def.'s Recons. Mem. at 14). This argument by the plaintiff, however, suffers from the same misperception that doomed his other procedural argument: The plaintiff confuses the defendant's Rule 54(b) motion-which may be filed "at any time before the entry of a judgment, " see FED. R. CIV. P. 54(b)-for a Rule 59(e) motion to alter or amend a judgment, which "must be filed no later than 28 days after the entry of the judgment, " FED. R. CIV. P. 59(e). The plaintiff is correct that if the defendant had filed a motion to alter or amend a judgment pursuant to Rule 59(e), the Court would not need to grant it "unless [it] finds that there is an intervening change of controlling of law, the availability of new evidence, or the need to correct a clear error or prevent manifest injustice." Firestone v. Firestone, 76 F.3d 1205, 1208 (D.C. Cir. 1996) (internal quotation marks omitted). As discussed above, however, "the standard for reconsideration of interlocutory orders under Rule 54(b) is distinct from the standard applicable to motions for reconsideration of final judgments" in that "it is clear that courts have more flexibility in applying Rule 54(b) than in determining whether reconsideration is appropriate under Rules 59(e) and 60(b)." Cobell, 224 F.R.D. at 272 (internal quotation marks omitted). Therefore, not only does the ...


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