The California Supreme Court yesterday ruled, contrary to the interest of defendants, that the statute of limitations for alleged in utero exposure to “a hazardous chemical or toxic substance” is tolled while the plaintiff is a minor. Further, the applicable statute is subject to a “discovery rule.” This means that such cases may lie dormant for decades before being sprung on defendants.
In Lopez v. Sony Electronics, the court resolved the question “which statute of limitations applies: that for toxic exposure claims, or that for prenatal injuries?” The court recognized that a claim for prenatal toxic exposure “appears to fall within the ambit of both statutes of limitations.”
“Because the toxic exposure statute was more recently enacted, and its language plainly encompasses prenatal injuries, we conclude it applies here.” The court also found persuasive that the toxic exposure statute included two express exclusions, reasoning that if the legislature had intended to exclude prenatal injuries as well that would have been in the statute. “Under the maxim of statutory construction, expressio unius est exclusio alterius, if exemptions are specified in a statute, we may not imply additional exemptions.”
The effect on defendants is potentially drastic. “The limitations period for toxic exposure suits is two years, but it is tolled while the plaintiff is a minor.” The prenatal injury statute of limitations, in contrast, is six years but with no tolling during minority. That alone is a difference of fourteen years. Further, the toxic exposure suit (but not the prenatal statute) is subject to the discovery rule, meaning that the two-year period may not begin to run until even later, when plaintiff claims first knowledge of “(1) an injury, (2) the physical cause of the injury, and (3) sufficient facts to put a reasonable person on inquiry notice that the injury was caused or contributed to by the wrongful act of another.” Thus, the Lopez decision means more defendants will be faced with suits on stale facts, disappeared witnesses and documents, frayed memories, and everything else that statutes of limitation are supposed to protect against.