In Stahl v. CTS Corp., the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit reversed an earlier grant of summary judgment in favor of defense after concluding precedent set by the North Carolina Supreme Court would allow a claim for latent disease to proceed.
Central to the case is the so-called “discovery rule,” which under North Carolina General Statutes Section 1-52(16) holds that personal injury actions – for which there is a three-year statute of limitation – do not accrue until bodily harm to plaintiff becomes apparent or reasonably ought to have become apparent to the affected person. Statute further states no cause of action shall accrue more than 10 years after the last negligent act or omission alleged.
The North Carolina Supreme Court has indicated this discovery rule tolls the statute of limitations for “certain latent injuries,” but that those are still subject to the 10-year date of repose.
Here, plaintiff filed a personal injury lawsuit against defendant corporation after he was diagnosed with leukemia, alleging the company was responsible for dumping toxic solvents into a stream near his Asheville home. This childhood exposure, he said, caused his leukemia.
Trial court dismissed the complaint, finding the 10-year statute of repose barred the complaint.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit disagreed. First, justices noted the North Carolina Supreme Court has not yet directly resolved the issue of whether that provision bars claims for latent diseases. The language use has always indicated “latent injuries.”
That put the federal appellate court in the position of trying to decide how the state’s highest court would decide were the question before it. Federal appeals court determined that under North Carolina law, a latent disease is recognized as something separate than a latent injury. Therefore, the court decided the North Carolina Supreme Court would not find the 10-year statute of repose applicable to the claim. Thus, the court reversed and remanded for further proceedings.
The case involves a now-dissolved company that used to operate a facility in Buncombe County that dumped large quantities of chemicals – including trichloroethylene – into nearby waters. One of those waterways was known as “Dingle Creek.” Plaintiff lived with his family on a property that the creek ran through, and was reportedly exposed to the water during his residence there, between 1959 and 1968.
Decades later, he was diagnosed with chronic myelogenous leukemia.
When defendant sought to have the case dismissed based on the expired statute of repose, plaintiff argued North Carolina precedent established that those time limits didn’t apply to cases where latent disease was alleged.
Trial court disagreed, but now the federal appeals court has found in his favor.
The appellate court has set precedence with this decision that will stand unless and until the North Carolina takes on the same issue directly. It’s difficult to imagine the state high court would take a different stance, given the fact that asbestos litigation – which involves latent diseases like mesothelioma following years-earlier exposure to asbestos fibers – has been ongoing for years.
Contact the Carolina injury lawyers at the Lee Law Offices by calling 800-887-1965.
Stahl v. CTS Corp., March 2, 2016, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit
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Eighty Four Mining Co. v. Morris – Black Lung Lawsuit Plaintiff Prevails, Feb. 27, 2016, Asheville Personal Injury Attorney Blog