It has been officially announced that Chief Justice Stuart Rabner  signed an Order, effective March 1, 2014, assigning all New Jersey asbestos matters to Judge Ana Viscomi in Middlesex County, replacing Judge Vincent LeBlon.  Judge  Viscomi served as the Special Master for several years in the 1990s and then served as an Administrative Law Judge for a number of years before her elevation to the state court bench on March 5, 2012. Judge Viscomi was in the Family Division since September 2012.  She has her B.A. from the University of Maryland and her J.D from New York Law School. 

Judge LeBlon will hear asbestos motions through March 14, 2014.  Judge Viscomi will hear all asbestos motions beginning with the March 28, 2014 return date.   Officially, trials which are scheduled to begin February 24, 2014 will continue to be handled by Judge LeBlon. Thereafter, the Special Master will be conducting trial calls for cases listed in March 2014.  Beginning in April 2014, Judge Viscomi will handle trial calls for all cases with trial dates thereafter.  For the sake of continuity, Judge LeBlon’s law clerk will be re-assigned to Judge Viscomi.   There is discussion about using Judge LeBlon and Judge Philip Paley as  ‘backup’ judges for asbestos matters when needed. 

We are told that the Special Master and the asbestos staff are preparing a new trial list through June 2014.  The plan appears to be to list for trial all cases with 2008 and 2009 docket numbers, as well as all cases, regardless of filing date, where plaintiff is alive and has an asbestos-related malignancy.  It  remains to be seen the extent to which this plan will be implemented and whether any new trial dates will effectively become ‘control dates’ for case management conferences where the Special Master will attempt to set shorter/more demanding schedules to encourage settlements and/or clear the docket of cases that are not significant ‘trial threats.’

Judge Viscomi has let it be known that she considers dialogue between the bench and bar very important.  She is strongly considering re-energizing the Asbestos Advisory Committee, which has met infrequently over the last several years and which her predecessors did not regularly utilize.  She has requested that members of the asbestos bar decide amongst themselves who should be on it with three attorneys to represent the plaintiffs’ bar and five from the defense bar.  Her Honor suggests that members be selected based on the numbers and types of cases being tried.  For example, defense members should include firms with clients comprising premises, friction and talc defendants, and membership may be extended to include electrical products and fertilizer manufacturers for future meetings.  The group may be enlarged if needed.   Counsel are to submit suggested membership to the Court and the Special Master by Friday, April 11.

Judge Viscomi will continue all current practices and procedures for now. Her Honor has said she will consider changes going forward with input from the bar.  She is interested in evaluating the methodology and effectiveness of selecting cases for the present “trial ready” list.   It has been suggested that she would go back to not having a separate “trial ready” list and going back to the "old" system of having a calendar call for the asbestos docket.   Her Honor is also evaluating the pretrial preparation process instituted by Judge LeBlon and will be looking for input from the bar accordingly.

During her time as the Special Master, Judge Viscomi had a reputation of pushing matters towards settlement.  Given Judge Viscomi’s lack of civil trial experience and her absence from the asbestos litigation for a number of years, we do not believe that she will issue any groundbreaking decisions until she develops a comfort level with the litigation and the issues. She is also not bound to follow Judge LeBlon’s or Judge McCormick’s decisions but may look to them for guidance.   The comments related above suggest that Her Honor is nonetheless willing to chart her own course administratively and consider new proposals.

In comparison to his predecessor, Judge McCormick, Judge LeBlon’s rulings demonstrated a willingness to give greater consideration to defensive arguments on matters of causation and product identification.  Consequently, His Honor appeared more willing to grant summary judgment to defendants.  As Judge Viscomi’s judicial experience has solely been in the Family Division, it remains to be seen whether Her Honor will continue those positions or chart her own course.   While her tenure as the Special Master suggests a more plaintiff-oriented approach, that was developed in the settlement arena and not with respect to substantive issues. Judge LeBlon did follow Judge McCormick’s lead in granting certain defense motions under the bare metal/component part defense, and it will be interesting to see whether Judge Viscomi continues on that path.  Judge LeBlon is apparently looking to wrap-up his motion calendar of reserved decisions, included several motions regarding the bare metal defense.