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Toxic Tort Law’s Statute of Limitations Policy Clarified

Ten days ago, the New York State Court of Appeals clarified when the victims of exposure to toxic products may be granted longer than usual to file suit against liable parties, in cases where the effects of exposure do not immediately appear. The case, Giordano v. Market America, Inc., takes up questions of the applicability of New York’s Toxic Tort Bill, singed into law by then-Governor Mario Cuomo in July 1986. In the case, plaintiff John Giordano suffered a cerebral aneurism and multiple strokes after taking a diet supplement containing ephedra, a substance later banned by the FDA. According to Giordano, he did not file suit within the three-year statute of limitations for personal injury mandated under New York’s rules for civil procedure (the CPLR), because he did not discover until after this period had elapsed that ephedra had been linked with health problems similar to those he developed after he began taking the drug. As described by the N.Y. State Court of Appeals, after Giordano filed suit against the distributor of the drug in state trial court, “the case was removed to federal court, the manufacturer of the product was added as a defendant, and the case was consolidated with other ephedra-related litigation in the Southern District of New York.” In federal district court, the defendants moved to dismiss Giordano’s case based on the three-year statute of limitations. The court granted their motion for summary judgment, but, since Giordano’s subsequent appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, the case has shuttled back and forth between the Federal District and Circuit court.

Most recently, the Second Circuit had asked the New York State Court of Appeals - the highest state court in New York - to clarify several relevant issues of state law that would determine if Giordano was exempted from the normal three-year statute of limitations or not. The State Court of Appeals was asked to clarify if the longer statute of limitations provided by New York’s Toxic Tort Law (CPLR 214-c) was limited to cases of “injuries caused by the latent effects of exposure to a substance” (our emphasis) and if injuries occurring within 1-2 days of exposure could be considered “latent.” While these queries might seem obscure, the point of all this is the question of how to determine what statute of limitations rule applies, and whether it depends primarily on the discovery of the injury itself, or the discovery of the cause of the injury. So, while the state Court of Appeals effectively ruled in the defendants’ favor by answering “yes” to the first question - saying that this statute of limitations extension for toxic torts claims is limited to cases where there are latent effects of exposure to a substance - the Court at the same time ruled in favor of plaintiffs by stating that the period of latency itself can be very small.

Further reading:

New York Law Journal article

U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit: Questions for the New York Court of Appeals

New York Court of Appeals: Answers to the Second Circuit's Questions

The Daily Record coverage

-Benedict Morelli and David Ratner

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