Roger Herring, a member of Asbestos Workers Local #7, worked at one of the largest private shipyards in the Pacific Northwest for twenty years during the 1960s and 70s, when asbestos insulation was used extensively throughout seagoing vessels. Todd Shipyards grew from a small boat repair shop opened in 1882 to a national conglomerate, with yards in port cities on all U.S. coasts. The Seattle yard produced and serviced many of the ships for Washington State Ferries, including the Spokane and the Walla Walla, the largest double-ended ferries ever built. Todd Shipyards filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 1987. Based on knowledge of Todd’s liability exposure to asbestos litigation, the bankruptcy court in which the company filed issued what is known as a bar claims date, which would block all suits filed against the company after 1989. Notice of this date was issued in major newspapers in Seattle and New York City. Herring contracted asbestosis in 1989 and was diagnosed with mesothelioma in 2002. He then filed suit against his former employer, but died before the case could come before a judge.
Herring’s estate carried on the lawsuit, but there was the problem of the bar claims date, thirteen years before Herring filed the complaint. Although Todd Shipyards did place notice of the bar claims date in four major publications, the company did not inform Herring’s union, which would have in turn made Herring aware of the situation. A Washington Sate Supreme Court has now ruled that Herring’s estate has no standing, reversing an earlier appeal. The ruling stated that the published notices were sufficient; Todd was under no obligation to notify the union of the impending bar claims date. In his opinion, Judge Thomas Chambers wrote: “Where the bankrupt knows of a large class of claimants, due process and diligence requires reasonable notice to those claimants. However, because it is undisputed that Todd did not have knowledge of Herring’s claim, Todd could not have given actual notice to Herring. Under current federal case law, it appears to us that Todd had no duty to inform Herring’s union.” The court’s decision was unanimous.