Appeals court backs ruling sending machinist's asbestos exposure suit back to state court

By Charmaine Little | Apr 2, 2019

NEW ORLEANS – The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit recently affirmed a U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana’s decision to remand a case in which a man was exposed to asbestos and contracted mesothelioma back to state court.

Following the appeals court's March 11 opinion, the suit filed by James A. Latiolais against Huntington Ingalls Inc., formerly Avondale Industries, claiming he suffered from mesothelioma caused by exposure to asbestos while working as a machinist aboard the USS Tappahannock in the Avondale shipyard, is headed back to Orleans Parish Civil District Court.

Huntington Ingalls had removed Latiolais’ case to the district court. 

Court filings say Latiolais worked at the Avondale shipyard, which was contracted with the U.S. Navy, when he says he was exposed to asbestos and then diagnosed with mesothelioma. He claims Avondale was negligent in its alleged failure to warn him about any asbestos dangers and offer safe equipment. 

The district court remanded the case back to state court, saying Avondale “had not shown that the United States or any of its officials exercised any control over Avondale’s safety practices,” according to the opinion. 

In affirming the district court ruling, the appeals court said that Avondale’s hope to steer clear of precedents in the current court despite “the foregoing propositions” is what made all of its other arguments moot.

The federal officer removal statute says a case filed in state court can be removed to federal court by “the United States or any agency thereof or any officer of the United States or any agency thereof, in an official or individual capacity, for or relating to any act under color of such office,” the ruling states. 

Regarding the phrase “relating to,” the appeals court held that the Supreme Court has already determined on multiple occasions that it indicates broad coverage. The appeals court pointed out that it’s tied down by a number of cases that raise a distinction for removal purposes for negligence claims, which aren’t removable, and strict liability, which are removable. It also determined the case doesn’t follow the causal nexus requirement since Latiolais’ claims are the same failure to warn claims that previous cases determined didn’t hold any federal interests.

Latiolais died in 2017, the same year he was diagnosed with the illness. 

U.S. Circuit Judge Edith Jones authored the opinion, with Circuit Judges Catharina Haynes and Andy Oldham concurring.

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