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  • Writer's pictureKirk Hartley

Will There Soon Be Another Chapter 11 Tort Claim Trust for Chinese Drywall Claims Against an Insolve

This summer brought the Chrysler and GM chapter 11 cases in which bankruptcy courts issued wide-ranging injunctions that seek to block some or all tort claimants from pursuing some or all current and/or future tort claims against the insolvent entities and their successors and/or buyers. Now, as we move into fall, here’s the latest example of the expanding use of chapter 11 injunctions and trust funds as the proposed means to resolve underlying alleged “mass tort” claims. These ongoing expansions make it even more important to scrutinize the rules to the process by which Wall Street is now able to use chapter 11 to eliminate or transfer financial responsibility for underlying mass tort claims. These ongoing expansions also make plain that there is a pressing need to pull down the veil of secrecy that blocks meaningful scrutiny of the operations of most, if not all, chapter 11 trust funds that resolve tort claims.

This latest example arises from this new motion filed in the Tousa home builder bankruptcy. The effort in Tousa parallels the approach taken in the WCI home builder chapter 11 case. The new motion in Tousa seek to continue the automatic stay to block tort and contract claims regarding buildings built with allegedly defective Chinese drywall. The motion seeks to continue to block the underlying lawsuits based on the prospect of creating a chapter 11 trust to resolve the same underlying lawsuits. Presumably the trust also would be used to resolve the claims that would arise if the court were to allow a proposed class action against Tousa by would-be drywall claimants . The proposed class action is the subject of other bankruptcy court motions.

The motion in Tousa is noteworthy for multiple reasons. For one, it asserts that the debtor will welcome the involvement of its insurers in creating the proposed trust. In contrast, in the asbestos chapter 11 cases, the debtors virtually always assert that trust are “insurance neutral,” meaning that whatever happens in the bankruptcy court does not effect the rights of insurers. Based on that claimed neutrality, the debtors and plaintiff’s lawyers almost always argue that the tort claim insurers lack “standing” to be involved in the bankruptcy court proceedings.

Insurers sometimes but not always disagree, depending on what view suits a particular insurer’s interest in a particular chapter 11 case and its overall financial status. Usually, but not always, insurers that issued primary policies re heavily exposed to the tort claims, and so will seek to cut a deal with the debtor and the plaintiff’s bar in order to achieve certainty. Other insurers that issued higher level excess policies tend to fight the debtor on the standing issue until they’ve created enough of a record that the debtor agrees to accept from the high-level insurer a nominal payment over time in return for a release of all obligations under the higher-level excess insurance policy.

The motion also is noteworthy for what it does not mention. For one, it makes no mention of the current or future rights of other, solvent companies that are now or will in the future end up as co-defendants in the underlying lawsuits. Co-defendant entities can be incredibly harmed by the terms of the bankruptcy trust if the terms cut off or in any way limits the right of co-defendants to bring cross-claims or equitable contribution claims against the debtor or the trust. In the chapter 11 asbestos cases, the trust terms almost always have imposed severe and unconstitutional limits on the rights of the co-defendants to bring cross-claims against the debtor or the trust. To be fair to co-defendants, bankruptcy courts can and should appoint at least one person to represent the interests of fat least future co-defendants.

Additional adverse impacts arise for co-defendants if secrecy is allowed regarding claims submitted to the trust fund and its payouts to particular claimants. Once again, the chapter 11 trust model should not be followed because in most such cases, the plan tosses a veil of secrecy over information regarding which claimants have made claims and what they have been paid. Co-defendants rightly argue that the veil of secrecy is poor public policy because court-ordered trusts should instead be transparent as a matter of public policy. Beyond pure policy issues, the veil of secrecy also is improper because it blocks the co-defendants from asserting state law rights. Secrecy also blocks legislators from understanding what really is or is not being done to compensate legitimate and illegitimate claimants.

The motion also is significant because it does not mention various other sources of conflicts between constituencies with interests in the terms of a trust created to resolve tort system claims. One source of conflicts is that persons with strong and serious claims do not want to see trust fund money frittered away on payments to spurious or marginal claimants. Once again the asbestos chapter 11 cases highlight the problem because most of the trusts have been put in place with terms that have allowed billions of dollars to be paid to claimants who are not “sick” in any meaningful way.

Here are key excerpts from the Tousa motion:

4. Among other things, the Debtors are aware of the recent plan of reorganization confirmed in the chapter 11 cases of WCI Communities, Inc. and certain of its affiliates (collectively, “WCI“) in which WCI successfully managed its liability with respect to Chinese Drywall by implementing a global strategy that will address Chinese Drywall claims through the use of a trust, a channeling injunction and claims liquidation procedures. Additionally, the plan of reorganization permitted WCI to efficiently address its’ claims against its insurance carriers as well as the installers and manufacturers of Chinese Drywall. While the Debtors continue to analyze their own Chinese Drywall cases and their prospects for a chapter 11 plan, the WCI approach offers one possible alternative to piecemeal litigation of Chinese Drywall claims.

5. The Debtors intend to work with their major creditor constituencies in an effort to establish a global strategy with respect to claims arising from or relating to Chinese Drywall. This global strategy will prevent a “race” to insurance proceeds by similarly situated claimants that will have the negative effect of depleting the amount of insurance available to satisfy other claims or, otherwise, impact the Debtors’ ability, as a practical matter, to craft a more comprehensive resolution of the Chinese Drywall-related claims. To that end, the Debtors intend to involve the alleged holders of Chinese Drywall-related claims and the Debtors’ insurance carriers in any such discussions. Based on the Debtors’ desire to develop a global resolution of the Movants and similar claims, the Debtors have filed this objection.

Hat tip to LAW360 for noting the motion to continue the automatic stay.

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