Ripley v. Foster Wheeler LLC, No. 15-1918 (4th Cir. 2016)

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Justia Opinion Summary

Plaintiff filed suit in Virginia state court against Appellants and others, alleging that plaintiff's husband, Bernard W. Ripley, was exposed to asbestos contained in products Appellants manufactured for the Navy, and that Appellants are liable for failure to warn of asbestos hazards. Appellants removed the case pursuant to the federal officer removal statute to the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. The district court remanded to state court, citing longstanding precedent in the district that denies the government contractor defense in failure to warn cases. However, given the weight of opposing precedent and the rationales supporting the defense, the court held that the government contractor defense is available in failure to warn cases. Accordingly, the court reversed and remanded for the district court to consider whether Appellants have presented sufficient proof to warrant removal pursuant to 28 U.S.C. 1442.

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PUBLISHED UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE FOURTH CIRCUIT No. 15-1918 DEBORAH H. RIPLEY, individually and as Administrator of the Estate of Bernard W. Ripley, deceased, Plaintiff - Appellee, and BERNARD W. RIPLEY, Plaintiff, v. FOSTER WHEELER LLC; FOSTER WHEELER ENERGY CORPORATION, Defendants – Appellants, and J. HENRY HOLLAND CORPORATION; WACO, INCORPORATED; METROPOLITAN LIFE INSURANCE COMPANY; UNION CARBIDE CORPORATION; SB DECKING, INC., a/k/a Selby Battersby; AURORA PUMP, CO; IMO INDUSTRIES, INCORPORATED, as successor in interest to Delaval Pumps; GOULDS PUMPS, INCORPORATED; INGERSOLL-RAND COMPANY; WARREN PUMPS, INCORPORATED; CRANE COMPANY; GRINNELL CORPORATION; THE J.R. CLARKSON COMPANY, individually and as successor by mergers to Kunkle Industries, Inc.; MILWAUKEE VALVE COMPANY; FLOWSERVE US, INC., individually and as successor in interest to Rockwell Edward Valves and Vogt Valves; SPIRAX SARCO, INC.; ARMSTRONG INTERNATIONAL, INC., individually and as a successor to Armstrong Machine Works, Defendants. Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, at Newport News. Arenda L. Wright Allen, District Judge. (4:14-cv-00070-AWA-LRL) Argued: September 22, 2016 Decided: November 1, 2016 Before TRAXLER, DIAZ, and THACKER, Circuit Judges. Reversed and remanded by published opinion. Judge Thacker wrote the opinion, in which Judge Traxler and Judge Diaz joined. ARGUED: Erik David Nadolink, WHEELER TRIGG O’DONNELL, LLP, Denver, Colorado, for Appellants. William Harty, PATTEN, WORNOM, HATTEN & DIAMONSTEIN, L.C., Newport News, Virginia, for Appellee. ON BRIEF: Anthony B. Taddeo, Jr., David M. Sturm, Matthew D. Joss, TADDEOSTURM PLC, Richmond, Virginia, for Appellants. Robert R. Hatten, Hugh B. McCormick, III, PATTEN, WORNOM, HATTEN & DIAMONSTEIN, L.C., Newport News, Virginia, for Appellee. 2 THACKER, Circuit Judge: Facing claims in Virginia state court for failing to warn of asbestos hazards in products manufactured for the Navy, Foster Wheeler LLC and Foster Wheeler Energy Corporation (“Appellants”) removed the case pursuant to the federal officer removal statute to the United States Eastern District of Virginia. District Court for the The district court remanded to state court, citing longstanding precedent in the district that denies the cases. government contractor defense Appellants timely appealed. in failure to warn For the reasons below, we reverse. I. From 1969 to 1972 and from 1974 to the late 1970s, Bernard W. Shipyard Ripley in worked Portsmouth, as a boilermaker Virginia. He at was malignant mesothelioma on February 24, 2014. Norfolk Naval diagnosed with On May 13, 2014, he and his wife, Deborah Ripley (“Appellee”), filed suit in the Newport News Circuit Court in Virginia, naming Appellants and others exposed as defendants. to asbestos The complaint contained 3 in alleges Mr. products Ripley was Appellants manufactured for the Navy, and that Appellants are liable for failure to warn of asbestos hazards. 1 On June 16, 2014, Appellants filed a Notice of Removal in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. Appellants asserted a government contractor defense, arguing that the suit stemmed from Appellants’ contract with the Navy to construct boilers and related equipment, and that removal is thus proper pursuant to the federal officer removal statute, 28 U.S.C. § 1442(a)(1). On August 6, 2015, the district court granted Appellee’s motion to remand, following a decades-old practice in the district that denies the government contractor defense in failure to warn cases. court reasoned, Because the defense did not apply, the Appellants could not establish the colorable federal defense necessary to support federal officer removal, thereby precluding federal subject matter jurisdiction. On August 8, 2015, Appellant filed a Notice of Appeal, urging this court to overturn the district court’s remand order. 2 1 Mr. Ripley died on November 14, 2014; the court substituted Appellee as administratrix of Mr. Ripley’s estate on March 18, 2015. 2 Of note, this issue only recently became appealable. In 2011, Congress amended 28 U.S.C. § 1447(d) to allow appeals from remand orders pursuant to § 1442. See Removal Clarification Act of 2011, Pub. L. No. 112–51, 125 Stat. 545, 546 (2011). 4 II. We review de novo issues jurisdiction, including removal. of subject matter See Dixon v. Coburg Dairy, Inc., 369 F.3d 811, 815–16 (4th Cir. 2004) (en banc) (quoting Mayes v. Rapoport, 198 F.3d 457, 460 (4th Cir. 1999)). Denial of the government contractor defense in failure to warn cases is also an issue of law we review de novo. See Warfaa v. Ali, 811 F.3d 653, 658 (4th Cir. 2016). III. The federal officer removal statute allows a defendant to remove a case from state to federal court if the defendant establishes (1) it is a federal officer or a “person acting under that officer,” 28 U.S.C. § 1442(a)(1); (2) a “colorable federal defense”; and (3) the suit is “for a[n] act under color of office,” which requires a causal nexus “between the charged conduct and asserted official authority,” Jefferson Cty., Ala. v. Acker, 527 U.S. 423, 431 (1999) (alteration and emphasis in original) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). Section 1442 is thus an exception to the well-pleaded complaint rule, federal which, absent question complaint. diversity, appears on prohibits the face of removal the unless a plaintiff’s See Jamison v. Wiley, 14 F.3d 222, 239 (4th Cir. 1994) (citing Mesa v. California, 489 U.S. 121, 136–37 (1989)). 5 The Supreme Court has recognized that “[o]ne of the primary purposes” of federal officer removal is to provide a federal forum for a federal defense. U.S. 402, 407 (1969). Willingham v. Morgan, 395 Proof of a “colorable” federal defense thus does not require the defendant to “win his case before he can have it removed” nor even establish that the defense is “clearly sustainable.” Id. Here, Appellants sought removal pursuant to § 1442 by asserting the government contractor defense as elucidated in Boyle v. United Technologies Corp., 487 U.S. 500 (1988). In Boyle, in the Supreme Court announced that design defects military equipment do not give rise to state-law tort claims if, “(1) the United specifications; States (2) the approved equipment reasonably conformed precise to those specifications; and (3) the supplier warned the United States about the dangers in the use of the equipment that were known to the supplier but not to the United States.” 487 U.S. at 512. The defense only applies if a contractor’s obligations to the government conflict with state law such that the contractor may not comply with both. See id. at 507–09. The rationales behind the defense are twofold. given the complexities of military decision making First, and the constitutional delegation of the war powers to the legislative and executive branches, separation 6 of powers suggests the judiciary should hesitate to intervene in matters of military procurement contracts. See Tozer v. LTV Corp., 792 F.2d 403, 405–07 (4th Cir. 1986). Second, as a practical matter, a higher risk government of costs liability to the for government while contractors decreasing would the increase supply of contractors and research and development in military equipment. Id. at 407–08. We must therefore decide whether the Supreme Court’s pronouncement defense in Boyle, applicable in holding design the defect government cases, contractor likewise shields defendants against failure to warn claims and thus provides a basis for federal jurisdiction pursuant to § 1442. In this case, given “the thousands of asbestos cases that have preceded” it in the Eastern District of Virginia, the district court “determined that the government contractor defense is not available in failure to warn cases.” McCormick v. C.E. Thurston & Sons, Inc., 977 F. Supp. 400, 403 (E.D. Va. 1997) (internal quotation marks omitted). However, the Eastern District of Virginia is clearly an outlier in this regard. to have considered District of Seventh, Ninth, the Virginia. and No other jurisdiction in the country issue is Indeed, Eleventh in accord the Circuits defense to failure to warn cases. 7 with Second, have the Fifth, all Eastern Sixth, applied the See e.g., In re Joint E. & S. Dist. N.Y. Asbestos Litig., 897 F.2d 626, 629–30 (2d Cir. 1990); Perez v. Lockheed Corp. (In re Air Disaster at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, on 8/29/90), 81 F.3d 570, 576 (5th Cir.), modified on other grounds, 88 F.3d 340 (5th Cir. 1996) (per curium); Tate v. Boeing Helicopters (Tate II), 140 F.3d 654, 656 (6th Cir. 1998); Oliver v. Oshkosh Truck Corp., 96 F.3d 992, 1003–04 (7th Cir. 1996); Snell v. Bell Helicopter Textron, Inc., 107 F.3d Indus., 744, 749–50 Inc., 898 (9th F.2d Cir. 1487, 1997); 1489 Dorse (11th v. Cir. Eagle-Picher 1990). And although we have not yet had the opportunity to consider this issue directly, we have recognized that these decisions of our sister circuits are “reasoned soundly.” Emory v. McDonnell Douglas Corp., 148 F.3d 347, 350 (4th Cir. 1998) (collecting cases). asbestos Moreover, products -- the multidistrict tasked with litigation handling court thousands of for such claims -- has also applied the defense and allowed removal on this basis Benjamin in failure Foster Co., to 739 warn F. cases. Supp. 2d See 770, e.g., 777–86 Hagen (E.D. v. Pa. 2010). In addition to the multitude of authorities adopting this approach, applicable in the failure rationales to warn identified cases. Just in as Boyle remain decisions on military equipment design involve complex cost-benefit analyses in which lay juries and judges 8 are not versed, military procurement contracts warning labeling and equipment. and specifications requirements involve inapplicable to manifold nonmilitary contractor Cf. Tozer, 792 F.2d at 405–07 (applying government defense in design defect case). Moreover, the constitutional separation of the judiciary from military matters carries no less force with respect to the design of military equipment than it does with respect to the warnings accompanying such equipment. Further, whether the risk of liability flows from design defect or failure to warn, the effect remains the same: government contractors willing to take such a risk will pass the increased cost to the government and will invest less in research and development. Given the Cf. id. at 407–08. weight of opposing precedent and the rationales supporting the defense, we now join the chorus and hold that the government failure to warn cases. contractor defense is available in Having established this, we leave it to the district court to decide whether Appellants have presented sufficient proof to warrant removal pursuant to § 1442. IV. For the foregoing reasons, we reverse and remand for further proceedings. REVERSED AND REMANDED 9