Learn more about Peltz-Steele v. UMass Faculty Federation at Court Listener (complaint) and the Liberty Justice Center. The case is now on appeal in the First Circuit as no. 22-1466 (PACER paywall). Please direct media inquiries to Kristen Williamson.
Showing posts with label strict liability. Show all posts
Showing posts with label strict liability. Show all posts

Wednesday, July 20, 2022

Flawed instruction on 'reasonable alternative design' requires vacatur of tobacco defense judgment

Plaintiff's decedent started smoking in the early 1960s,
at age 13 or 14, with free samples of Kents.

(David Shay CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons)
An error in jury instruction was small but crucial in a Massachusetts tobacco liability case, resulting in partial vacatur in the Appeals Court.

The plaintiff, decedent's representative, alleged design defect as cause of terminal lung cancer. The jury was instructed that the plaintiff had to prove the availability of a reasonable alternative design by the time the plaintiff was addicted.

That instruction described too tight a time frame, the court held. "[T]he jury should have been told to assess whether a reasonable alternative design existed at the time of distribution or sale."

The court explained:

If a manufacturer continues to make and sell a harmful and addictive product even though a safer alternative is available, the fact that the consumer is addicted to the product makes it more—not less—important for the manufacturer to adopt the available safer alternative. The purpose of anchoring liability to the point in time when the defective product is sold or distributed is to give manufacturers an incentive to create safer products [citing, inter alia, the Third Restatement of Torts].... Were we to adopt the defendants' view that liability should attach only up until the point in time a smoker becomes addicted to cigarettes, that incentive would be severely diminished, or even eliminated. Such a rule would in essence immunize cigarette manufacturers from liability to addicted persons even though they continue to sell or distribute defective products despite the availability of reasonable alternative designs. We see no reason to limit liability in this way, especially given the addictive nature of cigarettes, the speed with which smokers can become addicted to them, and the years—if not decades—thereafter during which a person continues to smoke and thus remains exposed to the dangers of cigarettes. In this regard, we note further that, as the expert testimony bore out, ... the degree or point of addiction to tobacco may be viewed as a continuum rather than a bright line. For this reason, it is all the more important that manufacturers be encouraged to produce safer, less addictive products at all points in time so as to increase the possibility that an addicted smoker be able to quit.

The court vacated the judgment in favor of defendants insofar as it arose from the erroneous instruction.

The case is Main v. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., No. 20-P-459 (Mass. App. Ct. Apr. 8, 2022). Justice Gabrielle R. Wolohojian wrote the opinion for a unanimous panel.

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Court affirms widow's $21m verdict vs. Big Tobacco, upholds punitive damages despite '98 settlement

Marlboro Red Open Box by Sarah Johnson (CC BY 2.0)
The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court today affirmed a $21m verdict against Philip Morris USA in favor of the widow of a smoker who died of lung cancer in 2016.

Fred R. Laramie started smoking in 1970, at age 13, when a store clerk gave him a free sample pack of Marlboros, the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) recounted.  He became a pack-a-day smoker and remained loyal to the brand, unable to quit despite trying, until his diagnosis and death in 2016.

Laramie's wife, Pamela, sued under the Massachusetts wrongful death statute.  She alleged that Marlboros were dangerously defective for their engineered addictive properties, an excess of the risk of smoking known to consumers and indicated on cigarette labels since 1969.  The jury in the Superior Court awarded Pamela Laramie $11m in compensatory damages and $10m in punitive damages.

The bulk of the high court's 37-page, unanimous opinion analyzes the inventive defense argument that the large punitive award is precluded by the 1998 Master Settlement Agreement (MSA) of state claims against Big Tobacco.  As the court recalled in a footnote:

The [Big Tobacco] defendants agreed to pay approximately $240 billion to the settling States over twenty-five years, and to pay approximately $9 billion per year thereafter in perpetuity, subject to various adjustments. The agreement allocated approximately four percent of those payments to the Commonwealth. The defendants also agreed to restrict cigarette advertising and lobbying efforts, to permit public access to certain internal documents, and to fund youth education programs.

Punitive damages are not awarded in Massachusetts common law; they must be authorized by statute.  The wrongful death statute authorizes punitive damages when the defendant caused injury "by ... malicious, willful, wanton or reckless conduct ... or by ... gross negligence."

The plaintiff successfully relied on internal documents of Big Tobacco that demonstrate the artificial manipulation of the nicotine content in cigarettes.  In the 1990s, the revelation of such records marked the plaintiff breakthrough that precipitated the collapse of Big Tobacco's long-successful wall of defenses in product liability litigation.  The revelation represented, more or less, the information at issue in the case of whistleblower-scientist Jeffrey Wigand, reported in 1996 by Vanity Fair and 60 Minutes and subject of the 1999 feature film, The Insider.

The SJC rejected the defense argument of claim preclusion.  The court recognized a qualitative difference between the claims of the Attorney General that resulted in the MSA and the claim of Laramie that persuaded a jury.

The "wrong" the plaintiff sought to remedy was the loss she and her daughter sustained due to Laramie's death, caused by Philip Morris's malicious, willful, wanton, reckless, or grossly negligent conduct, see [wrongful death statute,] G. L. c. 229, § 2. The "wrong" the Attorney General sought to remedy, by contrast, was the Commonwealth's increased medical expenditures caused by Philip Morris's commission of unfair or deceptive acts or practices in violation of [consumer protection law,] G. L. c. 93A, § 2.

Product liability, like punitive damages, is not a function of common law in Massachusetts, at least formally.  The commonwealth imposes strict product liability through a wide-ranging consumer protection statute, "chapter 93A."  Product liability is effectuated formally as a warranty obligation by eliminating the requirement of contractual privity between plaintiff and defendant.  But from that point, functionally, the courts breathe life into the system with multistate common law norms.

Probably Philip Morris's best argument for claim preclusion arose in the theory that chapter 93A affords treble damages, which were incorporated, in theory, into the MSA, and therefore overlaps with chapter 229 in wrongful death.  But the court distinguished the two statutes.  While both afford punitive recovery, the tests and purposes differ.  Damages under 93A were predicated on commercial practices that caused injury to state interests, while 229 damages, which are not capped, arise from culpability in inflicting personal injury on a decedent in a wrongful death action, here, Fred Laramie.

The court rejected a range of other asserted errors, whether because not error or harmless error, in relation to evidentiary admissions, jury instructions, and closing arguments.  Philip Morris had prevailed in the trial court on plaintiff claims of negligence and civil conspiracy.

With regard to jury instructions, the SJC distinguished product liability in warning defect, which was not plaintiff's theory of liability, from the design defect the plaintiff did claim.  The jury was properly instructed, the court held, that 

congressionally mandated warnings were adequate as a matter of law to warn Mr. Laramie and other members of the public of the hazards associated with smoking. The law, however, does not permit a cigarette manufacturer through its statements or actions to mislead consumers or make misrepresentations about the risks or hazards associated with smoking.

Philip Morris complained that the jury was thereby misled to test for liability in misrepresentation or warning defect.  The excerpted bit strikes me, too, as problematic.  Nevertheless, the SJC wrote that the jury was correctly instructed on the elements, so the instructions were "clear" when "viewed as a whole."

Interesting for torts pedagogy in product liability is the court's recitation of defense theories that were rejected at trial.

In its defense, Philip Morris introduced evidence that there was no adequate, safer alternative design for Marlboro cigarettes. An expert for Philip Morris testified that all cigarettes are dangerous, and that any proposed alternative design was not safer, not acceptable to consumers, or not technologically feasible. Philip Morris maintained that Marlboro cigarettes were not unreasonably dangerous to Laramie because Laramie understood the risks of smoking.

Reports linking smoking to cancer had been published in the 1950s and 1960s, and people had recognized that tobacco was addictive "going back almost [one hundred] years."  Moreover, there was testimony that every pack of Marlboro cigarettes sold between 1970 and 1984 contained a warning label from the Surgeon General that "cigarette smoking is dangerous to your health," and that every pack sold thereafter contained one of four warning labels that are still in use. Cigarette advertisements also were banned from television and radio beginning in January 1971, when Laramie was thirteen or fourteen years old. In addition, since January 1972, every print advertisement for cigarettes has been required to include a warning label similar to those on cigarette packs.

In sum, based on this evidence, Philip Morris argued that Laramie caused his own death because, despite being adequately informed of the health risks of smoking, Laramie chose to smoke, and then chose not to quit smoking.

(Paragraph breaks added.)  The plaintiff overcame the no-alternative-design defense by hypothesizing that Fred Laramie might not have become addicted to a low-nicotine cigarette.  Defense theories in assumption of risk, personal choice, and sufficiency of warning all fell short against the showing of nicotine manipulation.

The case is Laramie v. Philip Morris USA, Inc., No. SJC-13070 (Mass. Sept. 15, 2021) (oral argument at Suffolk Law).  Justice Dalila Argaez Wendlandt authored the opinion for the unanimous panel of six justices.  Disclosure: As an attorney in private practice, I worked on the Philip Morris defense team on tobacco litigation in the 1990s.

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Landlord owes no duty to cyclist attacked by tenant's dog, court rules, citing breed discrimination ban

A "dog law" decision in the Massachusetts Appeals Court today recognized the state's ban on breed-specific legislation and refused to recognize a landlord duty to protect a passing bicyclist from a tenant's pit bull.

Pixy.org CC0
In affirming the defendant's motion for summary judgment, the court recited the plaintiff's facts.  Plaintiff-bicyclist Creatini had his dog on a leash as he passed the unfenced yard of tenant Mills, owned by defendant-landlord McHugh.  Mills's pit bull terrier left the yard, gave chase, and attacked the plaintiff's dog.  The plaintiff fell from his bike and was injured—in the fall, not directly by the pit, though no word on how the plaintiff's dog fared.  McHugh knew that Mills kept the pit bull and had told him to get rid of the dog.

The court rejected plaintiff's effort to charge the landlord with a landowner duty of care in negligence.  Massachusetts approaches landowner liability through the "reasonableness under all the circumstances" approach, rather than the formalist common law framework of invitees and licensees.  Under either approach, landowner liability exposure can project beyond the property line along with a "condition of property," such as a dog.  But here, McHugh's knowledge was limited to the presence of a dog, not a foreseeable danger.  "Nothing in the summary judgment record indicate[d] that McHugh was aware that Mills's dog was aggressive or prone to attack passers-by," the court wrote.

The short case decision is instructive on duty in tort law, generally, and on animal law, in particular.  As to duty, the court briefly recited the conventional approach.  While it may be said that all persons owe a duty to all others to avert harm through the exercise of reasonable care, it is simultaneously true in American tort law, in general, that persons do not owe a duty to strangers with whom they have no interaction.  A "special relationship" recognized in common law also can give rise to duty, as for an innkeeper to a guest, but no such theory pertained here.

Photo by Airman 1st Class Jeremy Wentworth, 97 AMW/PA
Landowner liability grounds duty in the particular relationship between the premises owner (or controller) and one who comes on (or here, very near) the land.  To test here whether landlord and stranger-passerby were connected by strong enough a thread to support duty, the court quoted precedent, which in turn quoted 20th-century tort scholars Prosser and Keeton, recognizing the weight of public policy and common sense in the analysis (quotation marks and ellipses omitted):

The concept of duty is not sacrosanct in itself, but is only an expression of the sum total of considerations of policy which lead the law to say that the plaintiff is entitled to protection.  No better general statement can be made than that the courts will find a duty where, in general, reasonable persons would recognize it and agree that it exists.

The plaintiff pointed to precedent in which the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) recognized a duty owed by a keeper of firearms to a policeman shot by a man who had access to the keeper's home, whom the keeper knew to be under psychiatric observation, and who stole one of the weapons.  Foreseeability in that case was stronger on the facts, and, critically, the SJC had relied on a common law duty, echoed in statute, to manage a dangerous instrumentality, the gun, with the utmost care.

In animal law, in contrast, Massachusetts statute charges a dog owner, but the dog's owner only, with strict liability for injury inflicted by the dog.  Moreover, the court declined the plaintiff's entreaty to treat pit bulls (not actually a breed) specially as a "dangerous instrumentality," like a gun, volatile chemicals, or explosives.  (The defendant disputed the dog's breed, a question of fact, the court recognized, but not one that needed to be resolved for summary judgment.)  The court cited a line in a 2008 SJC opinion stating that a pit bull is "commonly known to be aggressive."  But subsequently enacted legislation dictates a contrary policy inclination.  The court recognized in footnote:

[D]ogs cannot be regulated based on their breed. In 2012, Massachusetts amended G. L. c. 140, § 157, to provide in part: "No order shall be issued directing that a dog deemed dangerous shall be removed from the town or city in which the owner of the dog resides. No city or town shall regulate dogs in a manner that is specific to breed."

Indeed, the 2012 Massachusetts law against breed-specific regulation was a victory for animal protection advocates.  The SJC's 2008 observation was correct as a statement of public perception, and perhaps reality.  But insofar as aggressiveness is a pit trait, it is a function of human selection.  Breed-discriminatory legislation leads to excessive euthanasia of animals that are not dangerous.  (Not for the faint of heart, be warned, Wikimedia Commons has a moving graphic image of euthanized pits, and I could not stomach using it here.)  Read more at "Stop BSL."

Pit bull advocates include Patrick Stewart, Star Trek's Captain Picard.  He was recently coronavirus-vaccinated and is soon to start shooting Picard season 2, a show on which he wanted to be sure that his character's dog is a pit.  Advocates also include one of my sisters, who today brings a new (human) baby home to live with her pits, Mia and (the original) Baby, the sweetest dogs I've ever known.  And combating breed discrimination has been a cause of the Animal Law Committee of the Tort Trial Insurance Practice Section of the American Bar Association, with which I've volunteered in the past.

[UPDATE, Jan. 28:] See CBS Sunday Morning correspondent Martha Teichner with her bull terrier, Girlie, featured in The New York Times on January 22 (subscription).  [Jan. 31:] See her talk about her new book, a dog romance, on CBS Sunday Morning, embedded below

© ASPCA
Among many groups, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) tracks anti-breed discrimination legislation and counted 21 state bans on breed-specific legislation (BSL) as of April 1, 2020.  "There is no evidence that breed-specific laws make communities safer for people or companion animals," the ASPCA writes, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), having studied dog bites and human fatalities, also opposes BSL.  In my home state of Rhode Island, local breed-specific legislation seems to persist, despite abrogation by state law in 2013.

The case is Creatini v. McHugh, No. 19-P-1159 (Mass. App. Ct. Jan. 27, 2021).  Justice C. Jeffrey Kinder authored the opinion of a unanimous panel that also comprised Justices Massing and Grant.

One must admit, duty in dog law is a succulent subject.

Wednesday, November 4, 2020

'Super tort' might represent failure of public policymaking, but is only tip of melting iceberg

First Circuit remands R.I. suit against Big Oil for public nuisance

Super Tort
(pxhere.com CC0)
A "super tort" sounds delicious.  Indeed, the term refers more often to food than to a theory of civil liability.  Maybe that's why the term animated headlines recently when the defense-friendly American Tort Reform Association (ATRA) used it in an amicus brief to the Oklahoma Supreme Court.

In October, ATRA filed its brief on the side of Johnson & Johnson's appeal of a $465m trial verdict of public nuisance liability in the opioid epidemic.  In the brief, ATRA warned that the award represented a "new species of public nuisance [that] will devour all of Oklahoma tort law and, with it, who knows how many businesses."  ATRA explained (my bold):

Since its inception, public nuisance has played a circumscribed role in Oklahoman—indeed, American—jurisprudence. It originated as a property-based tort used to remedy invasions of public lands or shared resources like highways and waterways. The trial court ignored that history, transforming public nuisance into a super tort that exposes Oklahoma businesses to unlimited liability for a broad array of public issues that are far removed from traditional public nuisances.

ATRA further argued its position in terms of the separation of powers, or, classically stated, Aristotelian justice:

The decision will also chill business activity throughout the state for fear that any product linked to a perceived social problem may lead to astronomical and disproportionate liability. It is not the judiciary's role to create a new tort to address social problems. That job belongs to the legislature, which can weigh competing policy factors and study the possible consequences of expanding traditional nuisance law.

Lead paint can
(Thester11 CC BY 3.0)
This isn't the first time ATRA has bemoaned the emergence of a public nuisance "super tort."  Among other tort-reform advocates, defense attorney Phil Goldberg used the term in 2008 and in 2018 to describe lead paint liability.  On the former occasion, echoed in an industry legal brief and in legal scholarship, the Supreme Court of Rhode Island had just rejected industry liability for lead paint on grounds that the defendants had no control over the product at the time it caused harm to children.  An ATRA leader warned of "super tort" in the climate change context as early as 2011 (States News Serv., Apr. 18, 2011 (quoting Tiger Joyce)). (Inapposite here, Patrick O'Callaghan, University College Cork, used the term "super tort" in the Irish Law Times in 2006 to describe potential excess in invasion-of-privacy liability.)

Nevertheless, public nuisance is the leading theory with which the State of Rhode Island now demands that oil companies pay for the past and future consequences of climate change.  Rhode Island alleges theories of product liability and public trust, in addition to public nuisance.  The state's suit is just one of many filed by state and local governments against Big Oil.  The Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, at Columbia Law School, tracks all U.S. litigation on climate change, including the Rhode Island suit

Just last week, the First Circuit remanded the Rhode Island suit to state court, rejecting industry claims of federal preemption.  Meanwhile, the case in state court is on hold while the U.S. Supreme Court ponders the outer constitutional limits of personal jurisdiction.  The Court's ruling in an otherwise unrelated case, which I wrote about in April and the Court heard this fall, has ramifications for Rhode Island's thin assertion of jurisdiction over transnational oil defendants.

Over the summer, I spoke about the expansive approach to public nuisance that resulted in the colossal Oklahoma award against Johnson & Johnson and that leads government claims against Big Oil over climate change.  Corporate objections voiced by ATRA, based in Aristotelian justice, are legitimate.  Ironically, as I discussed briefly in my lecture, I see this resort to the courts as an understandable expression of public frustration with corporate capture of our political branches of government.

The Rhode Island complaint images industry-sponsored public service announcements that sewed doubt about climate change and the role of fossil fuel.

Yet despite my skepticism, as a Rhode Islander and a taxpayer, I find the allegations in the state's 2018 complaint awfully persuasive.  The climate science is neatly summarized with color charts, and I'm a sucker for a color chart.  More dispassionately persuasive of moral responsibility on the part of industry, though, are excerpts of trade association advertising that downplayed, if not mocked, climate change science at a time when the industry must have known better.  The ads are eerily reminiscent of Big Tobacco efforts to downplay the risks of smoking for decades through the selectively scientific work of the Tobacco Institute.  That makes me wonder that product liability and consumer protection might be the states' and localities' best approach, not to mention a more doctrinally conservative strategy, and therefore judicially appealing approach, compared with a no-holds-barred theory of public nuisance—if we must rely on the courts alone, after all.

We might ought worry that "super tort" will devour our rational framework of civil liability.  But rather than reject industry responsibility and liability outright, we should add "super tort" to our lately exploded catalog of reasons to examine how and why our political institutions have failed to protect the environment, public health, and human life.

The case in Rhode Island state court is Rhode Island v. Chevron Corp., No. PC-2018-4716 (Bristol County, R.I. Super. Ct. filed July 2, 2018).  The case in the First Circuit was Rhode Island v. Shell Oil Prod. Co., No. 19-1818 (1st Cir. Oct. 29, 2020).

Friday, November 1, 2019

Teachable torts: Samsung satellite crash-lands in 'paradigm of reciprocity'

"Strict liability" in tort law is liability without fault.  That is, more precisely, it is liability without regard for fault.  Lawyers and social scientists have much debated the theoretical foundation and doctrinal justifications for strict liability.  After talking recently with a scholar-colleague in Honduras, I think strict liability may be on the rise in a new class of cases in Latin American environmental law.  Meanwhile, we use strict liability, in the United States, in certain classes of tort cases, such as when the defendant is a seller of a defective product, or the defendant was engaged in an "abnormally dangerous" activity, such as dynamiting.

Professor George Fletcher in 1972 posited one theoretical basis for strict liability as the "paradigm of reciprocity":

The general principle expressed in all of these situations governed by diverse doctrinal standards is that a victim has a right to recover for injuries caused by a risk greater in degree and different in order from those created by the victim and imposed on the defendant—in short, for injuries resulting from nonreciprocal risks. Cases of liability are those in which the defendant generates a disproportionate, excessive risk of harm, relative to the victim’s risk-creating activity. For example, a pilot or an airplane owner subjects those beneath the path of flight to nonreciprocal risks of harm.

The downed plane is the paradigmatic paradigm exemplar, albeit tragic.  But space news from a Michigan backyard, where no one was hurt, provides this week a happier occasion to consider the professor's proposal.

Monday, October 1, 2018

The Mystery of the Student Loan Fraud, or Of In Pari Delicto, Respondeat Superior, et Cetera


A still mysterious financial fraud perpetrated on students of Merrimack College resulted in a high court ruling last week on agency law with important implications for tort liability and the equitable doctrine of in pari delicto.

Students at Merrimack College Orientation in 2015.
By Merrimack College (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Merrimack is located in North Andover, Massachusetts (where the recent gas explosions occurred).  Merrimack is a small liberal arts college founded in the Roman Catholic tradition after World War II especially to serve returning vets.  Despite the depressed market in higher education, Merrimack this fall reported a record-size freshman class and plans to join Division I athletics.

In 2014, Merrimack financial aid director Christine Mordach pleaded guilty to federal criminal fraud charges, and in 2015, she was sentenced to a year’s imprisonment and ordered to pay $1.5 million in restitution.  She had been accused of perpetrating a scheme that replaced college scholarship awards with federal loan money on the college books.  The scheme came to light when a new accounting system started to inform students of federal Perkins debts they did not know they had.

Why Mordach did what she did is the mystery.  The scheme shored up the college’s bottom line through lean times, because money paid out of college coffers in grants was replaced with borrowed dollars that students would be on the hook to pay back.  But there was no evidence that Mordach was ordered to execute the scheme.  To the contrary, she seems to have taken steps to conceal it, which she did so well that Merrimack auditor KPMG gave the college a clean bill of health while the fraud was ongoing.

That brings us to the instant civil case.  Merrimack seeks to recover against KPMG on a range of theories, including breach of contract, professional malpractice, and negligent misrepresentation, for KPMG’s failure to detect the fraud.  KPMG won dismissal in the superior court upon the doctrine of in pari delicto.  Literally Latin for “in equal fault,” in pari delicto translates as the clean hands doctrine of equity.  In tort, the doctrine prevents a tortfeasor from recovering against a co-tortfeasor or innocent party—such as a bank robber who blames a co-conspirator for his bullet wound, or the burned arsonist who would blame firefighters for too slow a rescue.  Merrimack appealed the dismissal to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC).

Being a doctrine in equity, rather than a rule, in pari delicto calls for a fact-sensitive application, operating as a function of the parties’ relative moral blameworthiness.  Thus in a 1985 case discussed in the instant opinion, the U.S. Supreme Court allowed would-be beneficiaries of insider trading to sue their tipsters for losses resulting from misinformation, even if both plaintiffs and defendants were wrongdoers.  The plaintiffs’ trading upon a failure to disclose was not “substantially equal” in moral culpability to the tipsters’ illegal insider disclosures, the Court decided, and public policy favored holding the tipsters to civil account.

KPMG Boston (Google Maps Aug. 2017)
KPMG argues more than just Merrimack’s benefit derived from a favorable financial picture.  KPMG argued successfully in the superior court that Mordach’s actions must be imputed strictly to Merrimack upon the tort-and-agency doctrine of respondeat superior, because Mordach was an employee of Merrimack and acted within the scope of her employment.  So if intentional fraud is imputed to Merrimack, then in pari delicto precludes recovery against KPMG for the diminished culpability state of mere negligence.

On the one hand, the SJC reasoned, look at the problem from the perspective of Merrimack students:  Were they to have sued Merrimack—not actually necessary, as the college spent $6 million to square its affairs with students—there is little doubt that Mordach’s intentional tort would have imputed strictly, even to an otherwise innocent Merrimack, through respondeat superior.  From where the student sits, the fraud was perpetrated by Merrimack’s financial aid office: Mordach and college, one and the same.  Merrimack might have sought indemnity from employee Mordach, but that’s always true in respondeat superior cases (notwithstanding employment contract).

On the other hand, the SJC reasoned, look at the problem from the perspective of Merrimack College:  Strict liability through the action of respondeat superior imputes liability irrespective of fault and certainly says nothing about moral blameworthiness.  Merrimack as liable to students is never adjudicated as bearing fault.  From a moral standpoint, Merrimack is at worst guilty of neglect, or failure to act, such as by negligent supervision of its financial-aid director.  So notwithstanding strict legal liability, Merrimack’s negligence would implicate moral blameworthiness of a magnitude less than what the college alleges of KPMG.

When co-tortfeasors both commit an intentional tort, in pari delicto precludes liability of one to the other.  But that’s not necessarily so when merely negligent co-tortfeasors A and B unwittingly combine efforts to cause loss to C, incidentally causing loss also to B.  In the subsequent action B v. A, the old contributory negligence rule, as a complete defense, would have effectuated the clean-hands doctrine.  But contemporary tort law commits negligent co-tortfeasors to comparative-fault analysis.  In a modified-comparative-fault jurisdiction such as Massachusetts, B may recover from A if A bore more fault than B, and B’s recovery is reduced in proportion to B’s own share of fault. 

The SJC decided that moral blameworthiness, not legal liability exposure, must be the guiding principle for an equitable doctrine.  Merrimack might be on the hook hypothetically for respondeat superior liability, and even negligent supervision.  But neither of those rules suggests moral blameworthiness greater than KPMG’s.  The case might be different if Mordach has been a senior executive of Merrimack; she was not.  And there is no evidence that Merrimack knew what Mordach was up to, much less directed her actions.

So in the absence of an intentional tortfeasor between Merrimack and KPMG, in pari delicto does not apply.  If Merrimack’s negligence contributed to its own losses, that will come out in the comparative-fault wash.  That conclusion is bolstered by a comparative-fault-like mechanism in Massachusetts statute that applies specifically to client-versus-auditor malpractice claims.  Accordingly, the SJC reversed and remanded.

Chief Justice Gants at UMass Law (2016)
The SJC received amicus briefs from the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants, the Massachusetts Academy of Trial Attorneys (MATA), and the Chelsea Housing Authority.  For the MATA, attorney Jeffrey Nolan argued, like in the U.S. Supreme Court insider trading case, that liability exposure is needed to hold KPMG accountable, especially in a market dominated by the Big Four accounting firms.  The housing authority also backed Merrimack, attorney Susan Whalen recounting her client’s victimization by internal misconduct that went undetected by accountants.  She asserted that in pari delicto has “the perverse result of de facto immunity for gross levels of negligence” by auditors (Law360, subscription required).

All of that is not to say that KPMG will be held liable.  Besides fault yet to be proved, the SJC affirmed the superior court’s leave for KPMG to amend its answer, adding a defense of release.  Ut victoriam tyranne?

The case is Merrimack College v. KPMG LLP, No. SJC-12434 (Mass. Sept. 27, 2018).  The opinion was authored by Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants, a graduate of Harvard undergrad and law, one-time AUSA, and 2016 recipient of an honorary law degree from UMass Law School.