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A Plaintiff is the Master of His Complaint; May Restrict its Scope by Amendment to Avoid Federal Jurisdiction

Joyner v. A.C. & R. Insulation Co.
No. CCB-12-2294 (Maryland District Court, June 6, 2013)

by Elisabeth R. Connell, Summer Associate
Semmes, Bowen & Semmes (www.semmes.com)

On June 6, 2013, Judge Blake remanded this asbestos products liability action before the United States District Court for the District of Maryland back to the Circuit Court for Baltimore City after a flurry of activity between the two courts regarding one defendant, Crane Co. The court held that the Plaintiff Joyner, should be granted leave to amend the complaint to exclude any claim against Crane Co’s valves. The court also determined that Crane Co. was barred from asserting the government contractor defense with regard to its gaskets under 28 U.S.C. § 1441, because they had failed to assert the defense for that product in the specified time period. With this decision, the court ended the parallel litigation occurring in state and federal court, consolidating all claims in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City.

Joyner testified in deposition that he worked with or around Crane Co.’s valves and gaskets. His complaint stated four causes of action but did not include specific allegations about the locus of his asbestos exposure. Crane Co. invoked the government contractor defense with regard to the valves they produced for the U.S. Coast Guard, providing a basis to remove the lawsuit to federal court. During the removal hearing, the court explicitly asked counsel for Crane Co. whether the defense applied to the gaskets, as well as the valves. Counsel responded that they had not briefed the issue and would not be taking a position on the subject.

Thereafter, the Plaintiff motioned to abandon his claim against Crane Co. with respect to valve exposure only. The Court noted that the only procedural vehicles available to “abandon” a claim are a Rule 41(a)(2) voluntary dismissal or a Rule 15 amendment of the complaint. Rule 41(a), however, allows a plaintiff to dismiss an action, not a single claim of a larger action, or one piece of one claim as Joyner sought to do. Thus, a Rule 15 amendment was the appropriate tool to accomplish Joyner’s goal.

The Court rejected Crane Co.’s argument that, since Joyner had not identified any of the products causing his injuries in the complaint, there was nothing for him to amend or excise from the complaint to effectuate dismissal of the claim against Crane Co.’s valves. Joyner proposed to add a provision to the complaint explicitly stating that he made no claims for recovery against Crane Co. for its valves. The court acknowledged that jurisdictional disclaimers are invalid in the context of the federal officer removal statute under In re Asbestos Products Liability Litigation (No. VI), 770 F. Supp. 2d 736 (E.D. Pa. 2011), but drew a distinction between a jurisdictional disclaimer and Joyner’s proposed claim disclaimer. Crane Co. would not be prejudiced by allowing Joyner to elect not to seek damages for injuries allegedly caused by Crane Co., nor would this shift Crane Co.’s liability onto other defendants. Relying on Johnson v. Advance Am., 549 F.3d 932 (4th Cir. 2008), the court held that Joyner, as the master of his complaint, may amend his complaint to restrict its scope and sculpt its language to avoid federal jurisdiction.

Finally, Crane Co. argued that if the court remanded the case, they would assert the government contractor defense with respect to the gaskets and motion again to remove the case to federal court. The Court disagreed with this argument, finding that Crane Co. had failed to assert this defense with regard to their gaskets within the 30-day timeframe dictated by 28 U.S.C. § 1446(b)(3). Although they asserted the defense with regard to their valves, taking no position at the hearing on their gaskets was considered equivalent to failing to raise the defense for that product. Because the 30-day window prescribed by 1446(b)(3) had expired by the time of this motion, the Court held that Crane Co. was barred from seeking removal regard to Plaintiff’s claims as to Crane Co.’s gaskets.


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