A Los Angeles judge has blasted one of the nation's leading plaintiffs firms in asbestos litigation for attempting to obtain an upper hand in the case through what he called a "type of judicially sanctioned extortion."
The judge's statements came in a lawsuit filed by Waters & Kraus on behalf of a Los Angeles man who died of mesothelioma in December 2007. Six months before, the man had been deposed in Texas, where the case was first filed. The case has since been re-filed in California. During the past month, industrial product manufacturer Crane Co. sought to exclude the man's deposition from the case. In court papers, Crane argued that the information gleaned from the deposition, which under Texas law is limited to six hours, was insufficient to obtain summary judgment in California.
On April 7, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Aurelio Munoz, while refusing to grant summary judgment, concluded that Waters & Kraus had re-filed the case in California intentionally as a means to force a settlement. Calling such tactics a "waste of the court's time," Munoz noted that Waters & Kraus has played the same "grisly game of asbestos litigation" in at least nine cases.
Peter Kraus, managing partner of Dallas-based Waters & Kraus, told The National Law Journal that the judge "got it 180 degrees wrong." While not denying the firm's actions, Kraus said that its attorneys must file asbestos cases in jurisdictions where ailing clients don't have to endure lengthy depositions.
"And if they die, the facts necessary to prove their case die with them," he said.
Lawyers for Crane, in an April 24 appellate petition, said that the dispute could affect "potentially hundreds of pending and future asbestos personal injury and wrongful death actions in California."
"I definitely think this is something the defense and plaintiff's bar are going to watch very, very closely, and it will have very important ramifications regardless of whichever way it goes," said Alexandra Epand, a partner in the Los Angeles office of Nixon Peabody who handles asbestos litigation.