Deggs v. Asbestos Corp. – Wrongful Death Actions Limited

The state supreme court in Washington has imposed more stringent time limits on certain wrongful death lawsuits. In a 5-4 ruling in the case of Deggs v. Asbestos Corp., the justices ruled a wrongful death lawsuit cannot move forward if the statute of limitations has already run on the decedent’s own cause of action by the time of his or her death. Asbestos Dust Hazard

The majority in this instance rejected the plaintiff’s assertion that the heirs’ cause of action for wrongful death can’t arise until after the decedent dies.

According to court records, the decedent filed a lawsuit in 1999 against nearly 40 defendants for negligence regarding injuries arising from exposure to asbestos. He settled with a number of those defendants, and some others were dismissed. He ultimately went to trial with the last defendant remaining and secured a judgment in excess of $1.5 million. He died nine years later at the age of 84.

The decedent had served in the U.S. Navy during World War II and thereafter worked for decades in lumberyards and dockyards. Throughout the course of his life, he was exposed to asbestos from numerous sources. Inevitably, this resulted in serious, long-term harm to his health.

Starting in 1998 and through 2000, he was diagnosed with a host of asbestos-related diseases, including asbestosis, lymphoma, and pleural disease.

Wrongful death lawsuits in South Carolina, per S.C. Code § 15-3-530(6), have the same statute of limitations as is applicable for Washington State:  three years. The decedent’s daughter, the personal representative of his estate, filed a wrongful death lawsuit based on his asbestos-related injury. The defendants in this new action included one defendant who had been named in the decedent’s previous personal injury lawsuit, as well as numerous others who were not.

There was reportedly nothing in the record to indicate why the decedent failed to name these other defendants in his original personal injury lawsuit. One defendant, later joined by the others, moved to dismiss the lawsuit as time-barred because it had been filed more than three years after the plaintiff became aware of the asbestos-related injury. For this reason, the decedent himself did not have a legitimate cause of action against the defendants at the time of his death, and therefore the wrongful death claim shouldn’t be allowed to proceed. The trial court agreed.

The appeals court ultimately affirmed, but it was not without “vigorous dissent,” as the supreme court would later describe it. Since the decedent could not have filed a second lawsuit based on his asbestos exposure, the court ruled, his personal representative could not file a wrongful death lawsuit after his death.

The dissent had argued that “of course, a wrongful death action cannot accrue before death,” and therefore the statute of limitations couldn’t start running until that time either. The argument by the plaintiff was that wrongful death is a statutory claim that is distinct from the personal injury lawsuit. Her injuries suffered as a result of her father’s wrongful death were separate from the injuries her father suffered when he sued those defendants nearly two decades ago.

It was a case in which many parties had an interest, and amicus briefs were filed by third parties on both sides.

The state high court ultimately ruled that a wrongful death action, while not derivative of a personal injury lawsuit, accrues at the time the decedent’s personal representative discovered or should have discovered the cause of action. Still, while a wrongful death lawsuit is intended to benefit the decedent’s family, it is not totally separate from actions the decedent may have brought during their life. The question was whether the plaintiff, as her father’s personal representative, could maintain a lawsuit when her father could not have. The court answered that she could not.

Although this ruling doesn’t directly affect courts in South Carolina, it’s important to point out that state high courts often look to the rulings of other high courts when facing similar conflicts. In this way, the ruling in this case could have influence in future South Carolina wrongful death lawsuits.

Contact the Carolina injury lawyers at the Lee Law Offices by calling 800-887-1965.

Additional Resources:

Deggs v. Asbestos Corp., Oct. 6, 2016, Washington Supreme Court

More Blog Entries:

North Carolina Appeals Court Denies Relief to Woman Injured in Church Fall, Oct. 1, 2016, Spartanburg Wrongful Death Lawyer Blog

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