[author: Allison Low]
Effective July 2, 2012, asbestos cases in the San Francisco Superior Court are being governed by a new set of procedural rules. Following a decline in asbestos filings and severe budget shortfalls, the court issued the 16-page case management order to streamline the decades-old series of “general orders.” The new order makes only modest changes, but these changes affect a significant number of pending and future matters, as San Francisco carries the largest asbestos litigation caseload of any of California’s 58 Superior Courts.
The new order governs all cases pending or filed on or after July 2, 2012—but not any case with a trial date on or before September 30, 2012. Noteworthy changes are as follows:
Complex Designation and Fee: Asbestos cases are deemed complex under Standard 3.10 of the Standards of Judicial Administration and the California Rules of Court, Rule 3.403(b). The “complex” designation is not an advent of the new order—but it coincides with a near doubled increase in filing fees. The initial appearance fee in an asbestos case now costs $435 in addition to a complex designation fee of $1,000 for each defendant, up to $18,000 total for a case.
Prerequisites for Trial Setting: Under the rescinded general orders, the court clerk set a status and scheduling conference at the filing of the complaint. The conference was set approximately 11 months after the date of the complaint and anticipated that trial would be set in approximately six to nine months thereafter. The new order retains this timeline but adds prerequisites for trial setting—including that no trial date shall be set until the deposition of the plaintiff has been completed unless good cause is shown. This new rule may expedite discovery in order to ensure a timely trial setting or, at least, prevent trial from being set prematurely.
Optional Case Management Conferences: Prior to the new order, an asbestos litigant’s only formal access to the court was costly motion practice, rare status and scheduling conferences, and the assignment of trial. The new order allows the parties to request a case management conference to resolve an issue relating to the trial setting conference or trial date. This new rule may reduce the expense otherwise expended to have an issue heard before the court.
Discovery to Plaintiffs: Pursuant to the rescinded general orders, plaintiffs were obligated to respond to two sets of “standard interrogatories” in each case and set forth basic biographical information, specific claims of asbestos exposure, and the types/amount of damages claimed. Until both sets of responses were served, all special discovery per the Code of Civil Procedure was stayed. The new order eliminates the discovery stay and second set of standard interrogatories (which was a more detailed—but largely duplicative—recitation of plaintiffs’ exposure claims).
Discovery to Defendants: Under the rescinded general orders, defendants were required to prepare and annually update one set of standard interrogatories applicable to all asbestos cases. The standard interrogatories called for basic information about each defendant-entity. At their option, plaintiffs could also require that each defendant answer an abbreviated set of case specific standard interrogatories. The new order retains only the option of case specific standard interrogatories.
The court also retained several important rules from the general orders, including: the provision for electronic filing; the appointment of Berry and Berry as “designated defense counsel” (now annually renewing); plaintiffs’ obligation to provide basic case information upon filing by way of a “preliminary fact sheet”; and the presumptive 20-hour time limit for the plaintiff’s deposition in a preference case, among others.