Ortiz v. Fibreboard Corp.
Annotate this Case
527 U.S. 815 (1999)
OCTOBER TERM, 1998
ORTIZ ET AL. v. FIBRE BOARD CORP. ET AL.
CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE FIFTH CIRCUIT
No. 97-1704. Argued December 8, 1998-Decided June 23,1999
Respondent Fibreboard Corporation, an asbestos manufacturer, was locked in litigation for decades. Plaintiffs filed a stream of personal injury claims against it, swelling throughout the 1980's and 1990's to thousands of claims for compensatory damages each year. Fibreboard engaged in litigation with its insurers, respondent Continental Casualty Company and respondent Pacific Indemnity Company, over insurance coverage for the personal injury claims. In 1990, a California trial court ruled against Continental and Pacific, and the insurers appealed. At around the same time, Fibreboard approached a group of asbestos plaintiffs' lawyers, offering to discuss a "global settlement" of Fibreboard's asbestos liability. Negotiations at one point led to the settlement of some 45,000 pending claims, and the parties eventually agreed upon $1.535 billion as the key term of a "Global Settlement Agreement." Of this sum, $1.525 billion would come from Continental and Pacific, which had joined the negotiations, while Fibreboard would contribute $10 million, all but $500,000 of it from other insurance proceeds. At plaintiffs' counsels' insistence, Fibreboard and its insurers then reached a backup settlement of the coverage dispute in the "Trilateral Settlement Agreement," under which the insurers agreed to provide Fibreboard with $2 billion to defend against asbestos claimants and pay the winners, should the Global Settlement Agreement fail to win court approval. Subsequently, a group of named plaintiffs filed the present action in Federal District Court, seeking certification for settlement purposes of a mandatory class comprising three groups-claimants who had not yet sued Fibreboard, those who had dismissed such claims and retained the right to sue in the future, and relatives of class membersbut excluded claimants who had actions pending against Fibreboard or who had filed and, for negotiated value, dismissed such claims, and whose only retained right is to sue Fibreboard upon development of an asbestos-related malignancy. The District Court allowed petitioners and other objectors to intervene, held a fairness hearing under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23(e), ruled that the threshold Rule 23(a) numerosity, commonality, typicality, and adequacy of representation requirements were met, and certified the class under Rule 23(b)(1)(B). In response to intervenors' objections that the absence of a "limited fund"
precluded Rule 23(b)(1)(B) certification, the District Court ruled that both the disputed insurance asset liquidated by the $1.535 billion global settlement, and, alternatively, the sum of the value of Fibreboard plus the value of its insurance coverage, as measured by the insurance funds' settlement value, were relevant "limited funds." The Fifth Circuit affirmed both as to class certification and adequacy of settlement. Agreeing with the District Court's application of Rule 23(a), the Court of Appeals found, inter alia, that there were no conflicts of interest sufficiently serious to undermine the adequacy of class counsel's representation. As to Rule 23(b)(1)(B), the court approved the class certification on a "limited fund" rationale based on the threat to other class members' ability to receive full payment from Fibreboard's limited assets. This Court then decided Amchem Products, Inc. v. Windsor, 521 U. S. 591, vacated the Fifth Circuit's judgment, and remanded for further consideration in light of that decision. The Fifth Circuit again affirmed the District Court's judgment on remand.
1. This Court need not resolve two threshold matters before proceeding to the nub of the case. First, petitioners call the class claims nonjusticiable under Article III, saying that this is a feigned action initiated by Fibreboard to control its future asbestos tort liability, with the vast majority of the exposure-only class members being without injury in fact and hence without standing to sue. While an Article III court ordinarily must be sure of its own jurisdiction before getting to the merits, Steel Co. v. Citizens For Better Environment, 523 U. S. 83, 8889, a Rule 23 question should be treated first because class certification issues are "logically antecedent" to Article III concerns, Amchem, supra, at 612, and pertain to statutory standing, which may properly be treated before Article III standing, see Steel Co., supra, at 92. Second, although petitioners are correct that the Fifth Circuit on remand fell short in its attention to Amchem in passing on the Rule 23(a) issues, these points are dealt with in the Court's review of the certification on the Fifth Circuit's "limited fund" theory under Rule 23(b)(1)(B). Pp. 830-832.
2. Applicants for contested certification of a mandatory settlement class on a limited fund theory under Rule 23(b)(1)(B) must show that the fund is limited by more than the agreement of the parties, and has been allocated to claimants belonging within the class by a process addressing the conflicting interests of class members. Pp. 832-848.
(a) In drafting Rule 23(b), the Civil Rules Advisory Committee sought to catalogue in functional terms those recurrent life patterns which call for mass litigation through representative parties. Rule