By Dennis E. Vega and Pamela R. Kaplan

The New York Court of Appeals issued a decision yesterday affirming the lower court rulings denying summary judgment to Defendant Chevron Corporation and holding that under the heightened protections of admiralty law, a release signed by the Plaintiff in connection with a 1997 claim for injuries arising from alleged asbestos-related pleural disease for “any and all” claims for known or potential injuries did not release a subsequent diagnosis of mesothelioma.

The decision, written by Judge Wilson and joined by Judges Rivera, Fahey, and Feinman, noted that based on the heightened protections afforded to mariners, the burden was on Defendant Chevron to prove several factors relative to the 1997 release, including that it was executed freely, without deception or coercion, made by the seaman with a full understanding of his rights, and that there was adequate consideration. The Court held that the 1997 release “does not unambiguously extinguish a future claim for mesothelioma. . . . and does not mention mesothelioma.”  “[T]he absence of mesothelioma (and the other cancers) from the release could readily support the conclusion that the omission of mesothelioma (and the other cancers) from the language of the release was deliberate.” The Court also reasoned that it was unclear if the Plaintiff fully understood the terms of the release, and that the adequacy of consideration ($1,750) created a question of fact. 

The majority further explained that “it is possible that additional evidence could be developed that would validate the release and extinguish plaintiffs’ claims. However, applying Garrett’s heightened standard in the summary judgment posture, the record is presently insufficient to demonstrate the effectiveness of the 1997 release as a matter of law.”

Significantly, the dissent written by Judge Garcia and joined by Chief Judge DiFiore and Judge Stein comes to the opposite conclusion. The dissent notes that summary judgment to Chevron was appropriate in this case, based on the comprehensive release forfeiting “any and all” claims for known or potential injuries resulting from the alleged exposure to asbestos.  The dissent notes further that while admiralty law is designed to be “solicitous of seamen . . . it does not prevent them from entering into informed and voluntary settlements and from giving binding releases in connection therewith.”

The dissent highlights the “hopelessly high bar for defendants tasked with demonstrating the validity of a seaman’s release” which will result in “no kindness to the seaman, for it would make all settlements dangerous from the employer’s standpoint and thus tend to force the seaman more regularly into the courts.”

The dissent concludes “the majority turns New York into a destination venue for seaman plaintiffs who no longer wish to abide by the terms of their valid settlements. That result is wrong on the law, and undermines the many important policy goals furthered by settlement agreements.”