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From Products Liability Law Daily, July 9, 2013

Mine worker’s claims filed 30 years after diagnosis not timely under discovery rule

By Pamela C. Maloney, J.D.

The discovery rule did not apply to toll the one-year statute of limitations applicable to a mine worker’s products liability claims against the companies that manufactured masks and respirators worn by the worker while employed in the mines, a federal district court in Kentucky determined (Adams v. 3M Co., July 5, 2013, Thapar, A.).

Background. The mine worker, Donnie Adams, had been diagnosed with two serious coal-related lung diseases in 1981. The mine worker filed for and was awarded workers’ compensation and social security disability benefits. He also filed for but was denied federal benefits under the Black Lung Benefits Act. In July 2011, the worker’s sister advised him to speak with an attorney about his shortness of breath, and in June 2012, more than 30 years after his first black lung diagnosis, the worker filed a products liability claim against 3M and Mine Safety Appliances, alleging that the masks and respirators manufactured by those companies were defective and that those defects caused his lung diseases.

Discovery rule. The discovery rule was created as an exception to the normal statute of limitations period for those causes of action that are not “readily discoverable” within the one-year limitations period, the court explained. The discovery rule tolls the statute of limitations period until “the plaintiff discovers or in the exercise of reasonable diligence should have discovered” that he/she was injured and that his/her injury might have been caused by the defendant’s conduct. The mine worker knew by the end of 1981 that he had suffered an injury. In that year, he was diagnosed with both silicosis and black lung disease, and he filed both a workers’ compensation claim and a claim for federal black lung benefits. The fact that the mine worker took two different steps to assert legal claims showed that he knew or should have known that he had “suffered an invasion of his legally protected interests.” Thus, the only remaining questions were whether he knew that the named manufacturers had caused his injury and, if not, whether he exercised reasonable diligence in investigating the identity of his tortfeasors. Based on the facts known to the worker: (1) that he wore respirators in the mine to protect him from breathing in coal dust; (2) that the black lung disease he had been diagnosed with could be caused by inhaling coal dust; and (3) that he was diagnosed with black lung disease as a result of his work in coal mines, the worker had constructive knowledge of his injury that triggered the limitations period.

The court went on to explain that even if the worker did not have constructive knowledge of his claim against 3M and Mine Safety Appliances, the fact that he knew he had an injury in 1981 gave rise to a duty to investigate and discover the identity of the tortfeasors within the limitations period. The worker admitted that he did nothing from 1981 until 2011 to investigate the possibility that a defective respirator caused his injury. This failure to take any action was, as a matter of law, a failure to exercise reasonable diligence. Furthermore, the worker’s conclusion that he contracted silicosis because he did not wear his mask 25 to 30 percent of the time, without further investigation, did not satisfy the reasonable diligence standard. The worker’s duty to investigate with reasonable diligence did not cease simply because he erroneously, but genuinely, believed he had identified the source of his injury, the court admonished.

The case number is: 12-61-ART.

Attorneys: Michael B. Martin (Maloney Martin, LLP) and Zane T. Cagle (The Cagle Law Firm) for Adams. Adam B. Shadburne (Thompson, Miller & Simpson, PLC) for 3M Company. M. Trent Spurlock (Huddleston Bolen, LLP) for Mine Safety Appliances.

Companies: 3M Company; Mine Safety Appliances

MainStory: TopStory SofLReposeNews IndustrialCommercialEquipNews KentuckyNews

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