Asset Sales in Bankruptcy: An Important Decision

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U.S. bankruptcy law permits debtors-in-possession and trustees to sell assets free and clear of claims, liens and other interests. But a federal judge in New York ruled recently that a purchaser does not necessarily buy free and clear when a product manufactured pre-bankruptcy causes injury after a sale closes. Morgan Olson L.L.C. v. Frederico (In re Grumman Olson Indus., Inc.), No. 11 Civ. 2291, 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 44314 (S.D.N.Y. Mar. 29, 2012) (JPO). In this situation, the purchaser can remain liable for injuries caused by the asset purchased from the debtor.

In Morgan, the debtor, Grumman Olson Industries Inc. (Grumman), manufactured parts for trucks. In 2002, Grumman filed Chapter 11 in the Southern District of New York and sold its assets to Morgan Olson L.L.C. (Morgan) pursuant to Bankruptcy Code sections 363 and 365. The Bankruptcy Court's order approving the sale (Sale Order) provided that the sale was "free and clear of all . . . claims . . . and other interests . . . and all debts arising in any way in connection with any acts of the Debtor." Morgan Olson, at *4 (quoting Sale Order ¶¶ 4, 14). The Sale Order also provided that the Bankruptcy Court would retain jurisdiction "to interpret, implement and enforce the provisions of the Sale Order." Id., at *7 (quoting Sale Order ¶ 20).

In 2005, the Bankruptcy Court confirmed a liquidating plan for Grumman and closed the bankruptcy case. Then, in 2008, the driver of a truck manufactured with Grumman parts was injured when the truck struck a telephone pole. The driver, Denise Frederico (Frederico), sued Morgan in New Jersey state court, asserting that the truck "was manufactured, designed and/or sold by Grumman in 1994 and was defective for several reasons." Morgan Olson, at *8. The complaint alleged that Morgan was liable for Frederico's personal injuries as a successor-in-interest to Grumman based on New Jersey successor liability law.

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