Maryland Court of Special Appeals Rules Tobacco and Asbestos Defendants Can Be Joined in Wrongful Death Action

In a recently released opinion in the case of Stidham v. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. (Md. Ct. Spec. App. Aug. 27, 2015), the Maryland Court of Special Appeals finally answered the question of whether or not joinder of wrongful death claims against asbestos defendants with wrongful death claims asserted against tobacco defendants is proper. Despite the fact that the plaintiffs’ claims against the tobacco defendants had been dismissed by the circuit court due to misjoinder, and its claims against the asbestos defendants had been resolved by the time it reached the court, rendering the case moot by the time it reached the court, the court nevertheless addressed the merits of the case, finding that the appeal presented a recurring matter of public concern that, unless decided, would continue to evade judicial review.

In Stidham, the decedent initially filed a claim against asbestos manufacturers and distributors, alleging that he developed lung cancer due to his exposure to asbestos products. After his death, the wrongful death plaintiffs amended the complaint to add claims against certain tobacco companies, alleging that the asbestos and tobacco companies failed to warn the decedent that concurrent exposure to asbestos and cigarettes increased the risk to his health, a concept known as the synergy theory. Specifically, the theory proposes that a combination of asbestos exposure and the use of tobacco products exponentially increases the danger of developing cancer.  Therefore, there is a much greater risk that cigarette smokers exposed to asbestos will develop lung cancer, as opposed to non-smokers solely exposed  to asbestos.

Under the Maryland Rules of Civil Procedure, a plaintiff may join multiple defendants who are alleged to be jointly, severally, or alternatively liable to the plaintiff, if the issues in the litigation arise out of the same transaction, and there is a common question of law or fact with respect to all or part of the action. The Court of Special Appeals held that the rule clearly allows for tobacco defendants and asbestos defendants to be joined in one action as defendants. Since the claims alleged by the plaintiffs occurred during the same time period (i.e., the decedent’s exposure to asbestos and his smoking), and they involved the combined effects of cigarette smoke and asbestos exposure, the litigation arose out of the same series of occurrences. Furthermore, the case involved numerous common questions of law and fact, including whether the synergy theory has scientific merit, and whether the defendants should have known about its effects. Finally, the court noted that the issue of dividing damages is likely to be more efficient and less expensive by joining the defendants.

Although the court recognized that dismissal may remain an option for the circuit court, it should first endeavor to tailor the proceedings to prevent prejudice or other considerations before routinely dismissing cases in which joinder is otherwise proper.

The personal injury attorneys at Foran & Foran, P.A. provide experienced legal representation to Maryland residents pursing compensation after car accidents, medical malpractice, and other negligent events. To discuss your claim with one of our knowledgeable attorneys, contact us at (301) 441-2022 or through our website.

More Blog Posts:

Maryland Court Allows Plaintiff to Bring Wrongful Death Suit Based on Same Conduct as Prior Personal Injury Case, Maryland Personal Injury Blog, published August 21, 2015

Maryland Court of Special Appeals Addresses Discovery Issue in Lead Paint Suit, Maryland Personal Injury Blog, published July 31, 2015

Contact Information