The most recent decision in Flake v. Schrader-Bridgeport Int’l, Inc., 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 30372 (M.D. Tenn., Mar. 23, 2011) is just another chapter in this long-running environmental saga involving a successor liability, bankruptcy, toxic tort and environmental justice issues along with a piece of American automotive history. This well-traveled case began in a Tennessee county court in 1994, moved to the federal bankruptcy court and federal district court in New York, went back to Tennessee for rulings by a federal district court, and is now on appeal to the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit.
The story begins simply enough in the 1920s when Scovill, Inc acquired the A. Schrader Co, a manufacturer of the Schrader pneumatic tire valve (a/k/a the American valve). From 1964 to 1985, the Schrader Automotive division of Scovill, Inc. operated a plant located in Dickson, Tennessee. The plant was leased from the Dickson County Industrial Development Authority (IDA). The plant used TCE as a degreaser.
In 1985, Scovill was acquired by First City Industries (First City) who began to divest the firm of its non-core assets. As part of this strategy, the Dickson plant was closed. Around this time, the state started to become concern about potential groundwater contamination from a local landfill that had received wastes from the Dickson plant and other manufacturers in the areas.
Scovill decided to spin-off its Schrader Automotive division into a newly formed subsidiary, Schrader Automotive, Inc. (SAI). Pursuant to an October 1985 transfer agreement, SAI acquired all of the assets and liabilities of the Schrader Automotive division. SAI agreed to indemnify Scovill from all known and unknown liabilities relating to the Schrader Automotive Division’s business.
In March 1986, ArvinMeritor, Inc. (Arvin) agreed to purchase SAI. The purchase Agreement attempted to disclaim any liability on the part of Arvin relating to Dickson County by expressly affirming that SAI was not the owner of the Dickson Plant and that Arvin would not be assuming any liabilities relating to the operation of the Dickson Plant. To facilitate the transaction, SAI and Scovill entered amended the 1985 Transfer Agreement to unwind or rescind the SAI’s obligation to indemnify Scovill for claims arising from the Dickson Plant. Scovill released SAI and also agreed to indemnify SAI as well as Arvin for any breach of any representation or warranty by Scovill under the 1986 Agreement. Scovill’s indemnification obligation was guaranteed by First City.
In 1988, Scovill exercised its option to purchase the Dickson Plant from the IDA and then sold the Plant to Tennsco Corporation (“Tennsco”). In the mid-1990s Arvin sold SAI which was merged with Bridge Products, Inc. SAI was the surviving entity and changed its corporate name to Schrader-Bridgeport International, Inc (SBI).
Between 1985 and 1988, Saltire worked with the state to obtain closure of the facility’s hazardous waste management units. However, the closure did not include groundwater analysis and EPA launched its own RCRA Facility Assessment in 1987 that resulted in the identification of 15 solid waste management units. Scovill entered into a RCRA 3008(h) order to implement corrective actions.
First City filed for bankruptcy protection and as part of pre-packaged chapter 11 plan of reorganization, Alper Holdings (Alper) began the controlling shareholder of First City and assumed the obligations of First City under the Arvin Guaranty. By this time, Scovill changed its name to Saltire Industries, Inc. (Saltire). Alper and Saltire entered into a management agreement in where Alper agreed to manage Saltire’s various environmental matters. Nicholas Bauer was appointed as Saltire’s Vice President of Environmental Affairs but he was paid by Alper and sometimes represented himself as an Alper official. He also worked out of an office in Virginia where Alper was authorized to do business.
In December 2003, a number of plaintiffs filed suit against Saltire and Alper Holdings, alleging property damage and personal injuries from TCE in the groundwater. Partly to manage the environmental liabilities related to the Dickson plant, Saltire filed a chapter 11 petition in 2004. Arvin filed a claim against Saltire pursuant to the Indemnity that was disallowed after Saltire filed an objection and Arvin decided not to oppose the motion. Arvin reasoned it had a full guarantee from Alper that would provide greater protection than an unsecured claim in the bankruptcy proceeding. SBI did not file a proof of claim, though. A liquidating plan of reorganization was confirmed in 2006. As part of the plan, Alper negotiated a settlement on behalf of Saltire with the creditors committee where Alper agreed to forego its claims against Saltire and to pay $1 million to Saltire.
In 2004 and 2005, residents filed claims against Saltire, Alper, Schrader and ArvinMeritor alleging personal injury and property damage claims arising out of the contamination of a spring flowing through their property by the Dickson manufacturing plant. The Flake plaintiffs wanted to bottle and sell water from the spring and asserted their plans were upended when they learned that the wells on their property were contaminated. Other plaintiffs asserted property damage and personal injury claims.
In 2007, Scovill reached a $15MM settlement with its insurer that resolved the plaintiffs’ claims arising out of remediation of the Dickson Plant as well as liabilities associated with other facilities. The bankruptcy court issued a Stipulation and Order Approving Settlement that allowed plaintiffs’ claims for personal injury and property damage in the aggregate amount of $1.5 million, and expressly released Scovill/Saltire from any and all other claims.
Schrader notified Alper of a claim under the Guarantee in 2006 and then filed a complaint against Alper in 2007. This action prompted Alper to file its own chapter 11. The plaintiffs filed claims in the Alper bankruptcy case. Schrader also filed claims for past and future defense costs relating to the toxic tort litigation as well as indemnification. In a series of opinions in 2008, the bankruptcy court ruled that Alper could not be held liable for claims arising out of the Dickson plant and disallowed the claims. In re Alper Holdings USA, 2008 Bankr. LEXIS 86, (Bankr. S.D.N.Y. Jan. 15, 2008); In Re Alper, 2008 Bankr. LEXIS 522 (Bank. S.D.N.Y. 2/25/08), In re Alper Holdings USA, Inc., 386 B.R. 441 (Bankr. S.D.N.Y. 2008). The rulings said that Alper could not be directly liable for causing the contamination because Alper had no connection or relationship to Saltire or Dickson County until seven years after the Dickson Plant closed in 1985. The court also concluded that Alper’s “indirect, incidental” ownership interest in Saltire through First City did not retroactively make Alper liable for what went on in the Dickson Plant prior to its closure. The court also said that the plaintiffs had failed to plead sufficient facts to show that Alper had direct liability for negligent remediation when it effectively loaned Bauer, its employee, to Saltire to supervise the remediation. Finally, the court found that Alper had no indirect liability to the on either an alter ego or veil piercing theory, holding that neither the existence of a management agreement nor the common employee between the parent and subsidiary justified the extraordinary remedy of piercing the corporate veil. The plaintiffs appealed but the bankruptcy court rulings were affirmed. In re Alper Holdings USA, 398 B.R. 736 (S.D.N.Y. 2008).
Alper also objected to the Schrader claim, asserting they should be disallowed under section 502(e)(1)(B) of the Bankruptcy Code because they were contingent claims for reimbursement or contribution from an entity that is co-liable with the debtor. The bankruptcy court found that Alper was obligated under the Guaranty to indemnify Schrader for its past legal fees and expenses and that these were not contingent liabilities since these costs had already been incurred. Thus, the court overruled the objection. However, the court said the claims for future costs and indemnification were clearly claims for contribution or reimbursement, and contingent since the amount of the ultimate liability was unknown. Schrader argued that it could not be co-liable with Alper under 502(e)(1)(B) because Tennessee law no longer recognizes the common law doctrine of joint and several liability. However, the court said that the toxic tort plaintiffs had alleged that Alper and Schrader were liable as the corporate successors to Saltire for the negligent actions of Saltire. These allegations were in stark contrast to those asserted against ArvinMeritor which had been sued based upon its own subsequent and independent negligent and grossly negligent conduct. Accordingly, the court disallowed the Schrader claims for future costs and indemnity. In re Alper Holdings USA, 2008 Bankr. LEXIS 2634 (Bank. S.D.N.Y 9/18/08).
Plaintiffs then turned their attention to Schrader-Bridgeport International, Inc (SBI), its parent, Tomkins plc, and Arvin. First, the district court disposed with the claims against Tomkins, ruling in 2010 that general involvement with the subsidiary corporation’s performance, finance and budget decisions, and general policies and procedures was insufficient basis to assert personal jurisdiction over the parent much less pierce the corporate veil. Flake v. Schrader-Bridgeport Int’l, Inc, 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 23951 (M.D.Tenn. 3/15/10).
Turning to the claims against SBI and Arvin, the court also rejected plaintiff’s motion for partial summary judgment that the defendants were the successor in interest to Scovill, and Schrader Automotive. The court agreed with SBI that none of the exceptions to the general rule of non-liability for purchasers of corporate assets applied. The court said that Scovill retained responsibility for the Dickson Plant under the 1986 agreement. Likewise, Arvin did not acquire the plant in the 1995 agreement. Indeed, the court observed that Scovill continued to list the plant on its insurance policy after the 1986 transaction. Thus, the court held, so there was no assumption of liability.
The plaintiffs also asserted that SBI and Arvin were liable under the mere continuation theory. The facts that plaintiffs relied on were that Schrader Automotive Group employees became SAI employees and performed the same work after the transfer to SAI, Plaintiffs also pointed to the fact that Arvin and Schrader Automotive Group had the same general manager. The court ruled there was no successor liability under a mere continuation theory because there was no common identity of stock, shareholders and directors among SBI and Scovill or Arvin.
Plaintiffs had also pointed to an affidavit that SAI removed waste materials from the Dickson Plant. However, the court said the public records reflected that Scovill was the cleanup lead for the property. Moreover, the court said the contamination described in the affidavit related to metal sludge materials deposited offsite from the Dickson Plant and was unrelated to plaintiffs’ claims about TCE-contaminated groundwater.
Finally, the court said that even if SBI or Arvin could be considered to be successors to SBI’s, their liability would be limited to the extent of Scovill’s liability. However, the court explained, plaintiff’s settlement with Scovill settled SBI’s liability. As a result, the settlement also extinguished SBI’s and ArvinMeritor’s liability for those claims.