3rd Circuit: Negative Diagnosis Tolls Statute in Toxic Tort Case

Recently, a federal appeals court ruled that the statute of limitations can be tolled, or paused, in a toxic tort case if the plaintiff’s doctor has offered a definitive diagnosis that excluded the toxin as a cause of their ailments—even if the plaintiff suspected that the toxin was to blame. In Debiec v. Cabot Corp., a three-judge panel of the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decided to revive three separate wrongful death lawsuits that were filed by the estates of people who worked in or lived near a beryllium plant.

This ruling was a victory for Joseph J. Urban and of Golomb Legal, P.C., who argued that U.S. District Judge Harvey Bartle III made a mistake in originally dismissing these cases. The 3rd Circuit majority concluded that jurors should be left to decide whether or not the victims exercised due diligence in investigating the cause of their ailments. When evaluating a fourth such case, the panel unanimously held that Judge Bartle was correct in dismissing the case on statute of limitations grounds.

Separate lawsuits were originally filed by the estates of Jane Debiec, Mary Russo, Geneva Bare and John Branco. Each suit alleged that beryllium exposure contributed to their loved ones’ deaths. Beryllium is a metal with a variety of industrial uses that has been known to cause cancer and chronic lung disease, which is now referred to as chronic beryllium disease (CBD). These cases were originally dismissed by Judge Bartle because the two-year statute of limitations had already expired.

By dismissing these cases, Bartle rejected the argument that the statute of limitations was tolled under the “discovery rule.” According to Senior U.S. Circuit Judge Edward Becker, the burden is on the plaintiff to show that the suit was filed within two years of discovering that they were injured. The clock begins running when a plaintiff possesses sufficient evidence that a wrong was committed. “At some point, doctors told each of the plaintiffs that it was unlikely they were suffering from CBO,” Becker explained.

Ultimately, the decision to revive these wrongful death cases was centered on the 3rd Circuit’s own decision in Bohus v. Beloff, which stated that “lay persons should not be charged with greater knowledge of their physical condition than that possessed by the physicians on whose advice they must rely.”