The Minnesota Supreme Court recently affirmed long-standing precedent holding that the statute of limitations for wrongful death claims begins to run once asbestos is discovered to be the source of an injury. The decision, Palmer v. Walker Jamar Co.2, arose from a deceased mesothelioma claim. The decedent was diagnosed with mesothelioma in 2011, and learned a month later, in January 2012, that his disease was caused by asbestos exposure. The underlying case was filed in Minnesota in February of 2018, alleging that the Decedent developed mesothelioma as a result of working around asbestos-containing brake shoes as a janitor at a car dealership.
The district court that hears asbestos claims in Minnesota granted summary judgment for a brake manufacturer defendant. The court concluded the statute of limitations barred the claim because the Plaintiff filed the case more than six years after her husband learned that exposure to asbestos had caused his mesothelioma. The Plaintiff appealed, arguing that the statute of limitations did not begin to run until the Decedent could identify a specific manufacturer’s asbestos-containing product as the source of his exposure.
The court of appeals rejected the Plaintiff’s arguments and affirmed the district court. The Supreme Court granted a petition for further review and likewise affirmed the court of appeals, upholding its previous decision in DeCosse v. Armstrong Cork Co.3
Key Points in the Court’s Decision
First, the Court analyzed case precedent that has examined Minnesota’s wrongful death statute. That law states, in relevant part:
When death is caused by the wrongful act or omission of any person or corporation, the trustee… may maintain an action…for an injury caused by the wrongful act or omission…
[An] action under this section may be commenced within three years after the date of death provided that the action must be commenced within six years after the act or omission.
Minn. Stat. § 573.02, subd. 1 (emphasis added).
Second, the Supreme Court considered precedent set by its ruling in DeCosse. In that case, Mr. DeCosse died of mesothelioma and his son brought suit, alleging the defendants had exposed Mr. DeCosse to asbestos during his employment as a pipe coverer. In its analysis, the Supreme Court noted that the plain meaning of the statute is clear. As written, the statute time-bars a wrongful death action even before death occurs if the act or omission occurred more than six years preceding or if the action is not commenced within three years of death.
Asbestos-Related Disease is Unique
The Court went on, though, to discuss the “unique character of an asbestos-related disease.” The Court reasoned that because asbestos exposure is a continuing tort, the act or omission of exposing Mr. DeCosse to asbestos continued until the disease manifested and was causally linked to the asbestos-containing products. In DeCosse, mesothelioma was not determined to be the likely cause of death until approximately four years after Mr. DeCosse’s death. The Court reasoned that because Mr. DeCosse’s disease was never linked to asbestos before death, the most reasonable interpretation of Minn. Stat. § 573.02 was to hold that the cause of action accrued on the date of his death.
Ultimately, the Court determined that “because of the unique character of asbestos-related deaths, wrongful death actions brought in connection with those deaths accrue either upon manifestation of the fatal disease in a way that is causally linked to asbestos, or upon the date of death—whichever is earlier.”4 The Court therefore held that the statute of limitations had expired because the action was not commenced until the three-year period after Mr. DeCosse’s death had passed.
Turning back to Palmer, the Court cited to DeCosse in determining that the Plaintiff’s wrongful death claim accrued in January 2012, when the Decedent learned that his mesothelioma was a result of asbestos exposure. Because the disease was linked to asbestos before the Decedent’s death, the earlier date determined the accrual of the wrongful death claim. The Plaintiff did not file the action until February 2018—more than six years after accrual.
The Plaintiff argued that the trial court should have adopted a defendant-specific discovery rule: that accrual in a wrongful death claim begins when all elements of the claim, including the identity of the tortfeasor, are reasonably discoverable.
However, the Supreme Court held that asbestos-related disease is unique
in that there is rarely an identifiable moment when exposure to asbestos
can be said to have caused the disease.
This is unlike many other tort claims. Because of the unique nature of such a continuing tort, most courts have held that the claim accrues using the date of death or the point at which the disease is causally linked to asbestos, whichever is earlier.
Barred by the Statute of Limitations
In summary, the Supreme Court of Minnesota determined the proposed discovery rule was inconsistent with Minnesota precedent and noted that the legislature has made no changes to the relevant language since the DeCosse holding in 1982. Accordingly, the Supreme Court declined to overrule DeCosse or adopt Plaintiff’s proposed discovery rule. Instead, it affirmed the trial court, holding that the claim accrued in January 2012 and the suit was barred by the six-year statute of limitations.
A copy of the full opinion is available here.