Asbestos Case Demonstrates Importance of Filing Suit in the Proper Court

On television, legal cases are almost always decided by a dramatically discovered fact or through emotional testimony. In reality, many cases are decided by court rules or procedural technicalities. This might be true even if the substantive legal arguments would produce a different result. Such a scenario is demonstrated by the case of Pickett v. International Paper Company, a workplace asbestos exposure case involving both Webster and Morehouse Parishes.

Two procedural rules were at issue in the Pickett case. One of these was venue. In legal terminology, venue refers to the location of the proper legal location in which a case should be filed – in other words, the court in the proper parish. Under Louisiana’s rules of civil procedure, proper venue is typically determined by where an alleged defendant lives, is located, or conducts business (LSA-C.C.P. art. 41). That rule embodies an aspect of fairness to the party who must defend itself against a claim of wrongdoing. If there are jointly responsible defendants, the venue rule need only be satisfied as to one of them. If a defendant is a business or corporation that does not have an actual place of business in the state, a plaintiff may file suit in the parish where the plaintiff lives (LSA-C.C.P art. 42).

The second rule that helped determine the outcome of the Pickett case was presciption. Under Louisiana law, an injured party has one year from the date the injury was sustained to file a lawsuit. That one-year limit is often called the prescriptive period. If not filed within one year, that particular claim is barred by the passage of time. In certain cases, the prescriptive period may be essentially paused. However, in most cases the one-year limit applies.

The Pickett case was decided at an intersection of the venue and prescription rules. The plaintiffs in the case had filed a lawsuit in Webster Parish against multiple defendants. Most of these defendants were former employers of the plaintiffs who allegedly caused the plaintiffs to be exposed to asbestos. The particular defendant involved in the venue and prescription issues, Eaton Corporation, was a successor-in-interest to one of those companies. Eaton initially challenged the plaintiffs’ claims against it based on improper venue. It asserted, and the plaintiffs actually agreed, that Webster Parish was not the proper place to file suit against Eaton. The parties agreed that proper venue actually lay in Morehouse Parish, and the case was transferred to that parish’s court.

Eaton then argued to the Morehouse Parish court that the plaintiffs’ case was actually prescribed because Eaton was not sued in proper venue within the one-year prescriptive period. As long as a case is filed in a venue that is proper, the prescriptive period can be paused, even if that venue later becomes improper. For instance, venue may become improper if venue was based on a particular defendant and that defendant becomes no longer involved in the case. Eaton argued that Webster Parish was never proper venue for a suit against it. Therefore, the prescriptive period for the plaintiffs’ claims against Eaton was never interrupted, or paused, and Eaton was not served notice of the lawsuit until well after that prescriptive period expired.

The plaintiffs challenged Eaton’s prescription argument using two of the alternate venue rules, trying to establish that Webster Parish was a proper venue for the case at the outset. If Webster Parish was initially proper venue, the case against Eaton would have been filed in a timely manner. First, the plaintiffs attempted to assert proper venue based on the fact that venue was proper for another defendant, Asten Group. According to legal precedent, if venue is proper as to one defendant, it is proper as to all “joint or solidary obligors” (Pickett, 924 So.2d at 496). However, the court ruled that the plaintiffs’ injuries from Asten arose from different incidents than did the injuries attributable to Eaton. Thus, Eaton and Asten were not “joint and solidary” defendants, and the plaintiffs must establish proper venue for its claims against Eaton on their own account.

Secondly, the plaintiffs asserted that some of their injuries were due to events occurring in Webster Parish. Therefore, venue would have been proper in Webster Parish at the time the suit commenced. However, the court found that Eaton did not have operations in Webster Parish. Thus, the plaintiffs could not establish proper venue as to Eaton based on occurrences in Webster Parish.

Finding that the prescriptive period had indeed lapsed, the court dismissed the plaintiffs’ claims against Eaton. This case illustrates that legal claims can be decided based on technical details, regardless of what the actual evidence in the case indicates. The Pickett case provides yet another example of how important a quality, detail-oriented legal team is in protecting the rights of injured persons.