On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Union County.
Approved for Publication April 11, 1995
Before Judges Dreier, Wefing and Braithwaite. The opinion of the court was delivered by Dreier, P.j.a.d.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Dreier
Plaintiffs and certain of the defendant insurance companies appeal on leave granted in these consolidated cases from an order dissolving a temporary restraining order and denying a preliminary and permanent injunction prohibiting parallel litigation in Texas. Plaintiffs had instituted a declaratory judgment action in New Jersey against their insured and other carriers to determine their respective insurance coverages for various multi-state environmental and toxic tort claims against the insured.
In 1987, defendants Elf Atochem North America, Inc. and Pennwalt Corporation (collectively, Elf Atochem) *fn2 notified plaintiffs of an environmental claim against them for alleged liabilities for the company's Dunlap Towing site in the State of Washington. Over the next two years, plaintiffs were notified of additional claims concerning thirty-six sites in fourteen states. The number of sites and jurisdictions has since grown to sixty-six sites in nineteen states. Plaintiffs requested information from defendant concerning the claims. On January 16, 1991, defendant gave notice of substantial private party environmental claims concerning its Bryan, Texas plant. The claims were brought by people who lived or worked in the area of the Bryan plant for exposure to arsenic and other substances causing bodily injury and property damage.
The private party claims relative to the Bryan site evolved into seventeen lawsuits including a 30,000 member certified class action (Hayden v. Elf Atochem North Am., Inc., C.A. No. H-92-1054 (U.S.D.C., S.D. Tex.; Houston Div. 1992)). At a mediation session, plaintiffs learned that defendant thought it was in "poor shape from a liability perspective." Defendant later advised plaintiffs that another group of approximately twelve Bryan claimants were demanding substantial additional money.
On or about August 23, 1994, defendant gave plaintiffs and the other insurers global settlement and individual demands which have been supplemented as the Texas cases progressed. *fn3 The insurers were given less than a week to accept defendant's initial $23,000,000 demand, and defendant asked for standstill agreements with promises not to file suit against defendant. Plaintiffs did not agree.
Defendant indicated in a letter dated June 27, 1991 that the primary coverage was exhausted for certain years, and on August 23, 1994, defendant told plaintiffs that its primary coverage was completely exhausted as to the Bryan claims, and it was going to attempt to negotiate a settlement. *fn4
On August 29, 1994, plaintiffs instituted this New Jersey action against defendant and more than two dozen defendant insurance companies which, like plaintiffs, had issued comprehensive general liability insurance policies to defendant. The declaratory judgment action sought a declaration in one forum of the parties' rights and responsibilities under the insurance policies for claims against defendant in various states. The New Jersey action involves all of the sixty-six sites in nineteen states, with a potential liability of hundreds of millions of dollars. One of the sites covered by the suit includes the claims at Bryan, Texas.
During September 1994, defendant reached the tentative settlement agreements noted earlier with all pending Bryan claimants, some of whom would share in defendant's insurance recoveries, and on September 21, plaintiffs were informed of the pending settlements. The Hayden class action settlement is still awaiting the approval of the Federal District Court, and there may be some individual claims still open.
Defendant filed the Texas insurance coverage action on October 12, 1994, five weeks after the New Jersey action was instituted, seeking a declaration of insurance policy rights and obligations as it pertained to the Bryan, Texas site. (Defendant is also seeking statutory, common law and contractual relief and punitive damages against the insurers because of bad faith, fraud and violation of the Texas Unfair Claims Handling Practices Act). Defendant claims that the Texas action was brought in Harrison County, Texas, 200 miles from Bryan, because a site-specific claim can be tried there in less than two years of filing, where there would be a much longer delay in Brazos County, where Bryan is located. *fn5
Plaintiffs obtained an ex parte temporary restraining order from the New Jersey trial Judge on November 4, 1994, enjoining defendant from proceeding with the Texas action. Defendant and the Bryan plaintiffs then claimed that enjoining the Texas action would endanger the proposed settlements since the acceptance of the settlements was based on the insurance coverage litigation occurring in a Texas court. They, therefore, moved to vacate the temporary restraining order.
Travelers Indemnity Company and the other non-plaintiff insurers were not served before the hearing on vacating the TRO, but the Judge thought it was reasonable that only the moving party was served. Travelers' attorney, however, attended the November 10 hearing, but he was unprepared to argue the merits of defendant's claim to vacate the TRO. After arguments at the nonevidentiary hearing of November 10, 1994, the Judge on November11 telephoned the parties with his decision to dissolve the TRO and deny plaintiffs' request for a permanent injunction. After the trial Judge denied a stay, this court granted a stay of the November 11, 1994 order, to remain in ...