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Thomas & Betts Corp. v. New Albertson's Inc.

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

May 2, 2016

THOMAS & BETTS CORPORATION Plaintiff/Defendant-in-Counterclaim,
v.
NEW ALBERTSON'S, INC., Defendant/Plaintiff-in-Counterclaim. NEW ALBERTSON'S, INC. Third-Party Plaintiff,
v.
ALLIS-CHALMERS ENERGY, INC., Third-Party Defendants. THOMAS & BETTS CORPORATION Third-Party Plaintiff,
v.
SIEMENS INDUSTRY, INC., Third-Party Defendants.

MEMORANDUM OF DECISION

WILLIAM G. YOUNG, DISTRICT JUDGE.

I. INTRODUCTION

This case concerns the release of polychlorinated biphenyl (“PCBs”) onto the banks and streambed of the Middle and Lower portions of the Mother Brook Stream (the “Mother Brook”) located in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Boston, Massachusetts. Following a directive from the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (“MassDEP”) requiring Thomas & Betts and New Albertson’s to cooperate in completing the remediation of the PCB-contaminated Mother Brook, Thomas & Betts and New Albertson’s entered into an agreement (“the Agreement”) governing the relationship between the two parties during the remediation. Compl. 1, ECF No. 1; Trial Ex. 166. The Agreement addressed the parties’ “duty to cooperate” in implementing MassDEP’s directive as well as the interim allocation of cleanup costs, among other matters. Trial Ex. 166 2-4. Pursuant to the Agreement, New Albertson’s made interim payments to Thomas & Betts totaling $2, 924, 306.88 (the “Agreement Amount”). New Albertson’s, Inc.’s Mot., Alter, Amend Correct J. (“New Albertson’s Mot. Alter”), Ex. A, First Am. J. 2, ECF 808-1; Mem. Supp. Thomas & Betts Corp.’s Mot. New Trial (“Mem. Thomas & Betts”) 13, ECF No. 819; Trial Tr., 61:23-62:6, Dec. 18, 2015, ECF No. 796.

On November 12, 2010, Thomas & Betts filed a complaint against New Albertson’s alleging that New Albertson’s had ceased making interim payments to Thomas & Betts, and asserting claims for breach of contract and breach of the duty of good faith arising out of New Albertson’s failure to reimburse Thomas & Betts for its share of remediation costs and for the invoices paid to the environmental clean-up contractors. Compl. 1-2, 6-8. On January 18, 2011, New Albertson’s filed breach-of-contract counterclaims against Thomas & Betts related to the Agreement Amount as well as a counterclaim under the Massachusetts Oil and Hazardous Material Release Prevention Act, Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 21E (“Chapter 21E”) §§ 4 and 4A, for reimbursement, contribution, or an equitable share of the cleanup costs it had separately incurred. Ans. Countercl. New Albertson’s, ECF No. 7. In response, Thomas & Betts filed its own Chapter 21E counterclaims, in addition to counterclaims alleging breach of contract and breach of the duty of good faith related to New Albertson’s’ failure to cooperate with Thomas & Betts in completing the Mother Brook remediation. Thomas & Betts Corp.’s Ans. Am. Countercl., ECF No. 45. Thomas & Betts also filed a third party complaint asserting Chapter 21E claims against Alfa Laval and the Charter School on December 8, 2011. Third Party Compl. Boston Renaissance Charter School, Inc., Boston Renaissance Charter Public School, Alfa Laval, Inc., ECF No. 83.

By the time trial commenced, the litigation had become primarily a Chapter 21E contribution action involving several other counterparties abutting Mother Brook. The original contract causes of action, though never waived, had become but a minor subplot. At trial, Thomas & Betts, as the primary plaintiff, was the first party to present evidence. After Thomas & Betts concluded presenting its evidence, New Albertson’s moved for a partial directed verdict on Thomas & Betts’s breach of contract claims and counterclaims insofar as these related to the invoices admittedly paid by New Albertson’s. Mot. Directed Verdict Thomas & Betts Corp.’s Contract Claims Non-Payment Certain Shaw Environmental Invoices 1, ECF No. 698. The Court allowed this motion for partial direct verdict. Trial Tr. vol. 2, 88:2-4, Dec. 9, 2015, ECF No. 782.

Toward the end of the trial, Thomas & Betts submitted proposed jury instructions including a proposed charge related to the breach-of-contract and breach-of-duty-of-good-faith claims that both Thomas & Betts and New Albertson’s had asserted. Pl.’s Proposed Jury Instr.’s 25-29, ECF No. 691. Neither the Court’s December 18, 2015 jury instructions nor the verdict form for the jury addressed the breach of contract claims and counterclaims. Trial Tr., 35:9-91:21, Dec. 18, 2015; Jury Verdict. Thomas & Betts objected to the omission of the breach of contract verdict questions in the Court’s jury verdict form. Thomas & Betts Corp.’s Obj. Court’s Latest Proposed Jury Verdict Form, ECF No. 743; Trial Tr., 73:10-17, Dec. 18, 2015.

On December 22, 2015, at the conclusion of a six-week trial, the jury returned its verdict, which consisted of answers to three questions contained on the jury verdict form. On question 1, the jury found that the plaintiff Thomas & Betts Corporation (“Thomas & Betts”) had met its burden of proving that it had incurred $12, 703, 322.52 in reasonable and necessary environmental response costs. Jury Verdict 1, ECF No. 801. The jury assigned Thomas & Betts responsibility for 85% of these costs. Id. at 2. Of the defendants, the jury found Alfa Laval, Inc. (“Alfa Laval”) and Boston Renaissance Charter School, Inc. (the “Charter School”) liable to Thomas & Betts, for 14% and 1% of the response costs, respectively. Id. The jury also concluded on question 2 of the jury verdict form that the defendant New Albertson’s Inc. (“New Albertson’s”) had met its burden of proving that it incurred $791, 398.31 in reasonable and necessary response costs related to the clean-up of Mother Brook. Id. at 3. The jury left New Albertson’s to shoulder 25% of these costs and found Thomas & Betts liable for the remaining 75%. Id. Lastly, in answering question 3, the jury found that New Albertson’s had not caused or contributed to the release of PCBs onto the banks or streambed of Middle and Lower Mother Brook. Id. at 4. The jury found that the remaining defendants, Jeanette Yukon as general partner of Yukon Hyde Park Avenue LLP (“Yukon”), Allis-Chalmers Energy Inc. (“Allis-Chalmers”), and Dampney Company, Inc. (“Dampney”), were not liable to Thomas & Betts or New Albertson’s for environmental response costs. Id. at 2-3. The Court entered judgment upon this jury verdict on December 31, 2015. J. Civil Case, ECF No. 803.

Following the verdict and the ensuing judgment, all parties in this action filed post-trial motions, including motions for a new trial, motions to alter or amend the judgment, and motions for judgment as matter of law.[1] On March 29, 2016, the Court issued an order ruling on these motions. Order, ECF No. 890. In view of the comprehensive trial record, most of the Court’s rulings contained in that order are self-explanatory. Only the two arguments Thomas & Betts raised in its motion for a new trial, Thomas & Betts Corp.’s Mot. New Trial, ECF No. 818; Mem. Thomas & Betts, and the issues surrounding the award of prejudgment fees, merit a full explanation.

II. THOMAS & BETTS’S MOTION FOR A NEW TRIAL

In its motion for a new trial pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 59(b), Thomas & Betts raised six grounds, denominated as (A) through (F). Mem. Thomas & Betts 1-2. The Court denied this motion on March 29, 2016. Order. The Court summarily rejected arguments (B), (C), (D) and (F)[2] but addresses below Thomas & Betts’ first argument -- that it must be granted a new trial because the Court declined to include a verdict question or to instruct the jury on Thomas & Betts’s breach of contract claim against New Albertson’s -- and its fifth argument -- that a new trial should be granted because, in the absence of a breach of contract question on the jury verdict form, it was impossible to determine what equitable allocation should apply to the Agreement. Mem. Thomas & Betts 1, 13.

A. Legal Framework

When addressing a motion for a new trial, “[a] district court may set aside the jury's verdict and order a new trial only if the verdict is against the law, against the weight of the credible evidence, or tantamount to a miscarriage of justice.” Ira Green, Inc. v. Military Sales & Serv. Co., 775 F.3d 12, 18 (1st Cir. 2014) (internal citation and quotation marks omitted). Granting the motion is within this Court’s discretion, Velazquez v. Figueroa-Gomez, 996 F.2d 425, 427 (1st Cir. 1993), which this Court exercises sparingly, see MacNeill Eng'g Co. v. Trisport, Ltd., 126 F.Supp.2d 51, 63 (D. Mass. 2001) (“A motion for a new trial is not to be taken lightly.”); Tavares v. Mich. Fishing, Inc., 937 F.Supp. 84, 86 (D. Mass. 1996).

B. Lack of a Jury Verdict Question on Breach-of-Contract Claim

Thomas & Betts has not convinced the Court that the absence of a breach-of-contract verdict question (and the absence of related jury instructions) constitutes a ...


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