Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Friday, July 6, 2018


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Supreme Court:

Prenatal Toxic Exposure Claims Tolled During Minority

Unanimous Court Says Six-Year Statute Ordinarily Relating to Prenatal Injuries Does Not Apply


By a MetNews Staff Writer


Injuries resulting from exposure to toxic substances while in the womb are governed by the toxic exposure statute, which is tolled until the plaintiff reaches the age of majority, the California Supreme Court held yesterday.

The unanimous opinion was penned by Justice Carol A. Corrigan.

Corrigan compared two statutes of limitation, either one of which might have been applied to the plaintiff’s injury, allegedly suffered when her mother worked at a Sony Electronics, Inc. manufacturing facility while pregnant.

The plaintiff, who suffers from developmental and chromosomal defects and is now 19, filed her suit in 2012, at age 12. Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Frederick C. Shaller granted Sony’s motion for summary judgment, agreeing that the six-year statute of limitations for prenatal injuries in Code of Civil Procedure §340.4 applied to such cases.

That statute expressly disallows application of §352 of that code, which provides for tolling of statutes of limitations during minority.

Div. Eight of this district’s Court of Appeal affirmed Shaller’s ruling in a split decision, in 2016.

Yesterday’s opinion, applying the toxic exposure statute found at §340.8 of the same code, reverses that 2016 decision, and disapproves the Sixth District Court of Appeal’s like holding in the 2014 case of Nguyen v. Western Digital Corporation. Sec. 340.8 contains a two-year time-bar, but does not eliminate tolling.

Later Decision

Corrigan wrote:

“Plaintiff’s case appears to fall within the ambit of both statutes of limitations….Allegedly, plaintiff’s injuries were both sustained before birth and caused by toxic exposure.”

She explained that because the statutes could not be harmonized, the court needed to “determine which limitations period the Legislature intended to apply,” proceeding to weigh competing factors.

The later statute is generally accorded more weight than the earlier one,” Corrigan pointed out, noting that here, the toxic exposure statute was enacted 60 years after the prenatal injury statute.

“This fact is important,” she said, “though it does not end the inquiry.”

Statutory Language

Looking at the language of the later statute, the justice noted:

“The toxic exposure statute embraces ‘any’ civil action….The word ‘any’ means that section 340.8 applies to all actions described in the statute unless an express exception is made.”

The statute does list two such exceptions.

“Section 340.8, subdivision (c)(1) specifically excludes asbestos and medical malpractice claims,” she wrote.

Corrigan applied the rule of interpretation that prohibits courts from implying additional exceptions to a law when the Legislature has provided a specific list of exceptions.

“The Legislature could have provided that prenatal injuries be excluded from section 340.8’s reach,” she said. “We will not create an exception the Legislature did not enact.”

Absurd Result Argued

Sony’s argued that applying §340.8 would create the absurd result of enlarging the time bar from the usual period of six years from the date of birth to the plaintiff turns 20, with the two-year statute beginning to run when the plaintiff reaches majority at 18. Corrigan responded:

“The Legislature could reasonably have chosen to treat in utero toxic exposure cases differently from the more general class of injuries suffered before or during birth. The potential causes of many birth-related injuries will be readily identifiable, and it is reasonable to expect their effect will manifest before a child reaches age six. A prohibition against tolling during minority may not be onerous in those circumstances.

“The toxic exposure statute, on the other hand, is not limited to an identifiable period like gestation and birth. It covers an exposure occurring at any age. The exposure may also occur under circumstances less likely to put a plaintiff on notice. It may happen over a brief or extended period, in the workplace, the home, or other frequented locations. The harmful effects of exposure may take longer to manifest than injuries from other causes, regardless of whether the exposure occurred before or after birth. The Legislature’s policy choice to permit tolling during a period of minority or incapacity, as section 352 does, reflects these differences.”

The case is Lopez v. Sony Electronics, Inc., S235357.

Lopez was represented by Michael B. Gurien from the Los Angeles offices of Waters Kraus & Paul. Sony’s attorneys on appeal were William A. Bossen, Alejandro H. Aharonian, and Cheryl A. Orr from the Los Angeles offices of Musick, Peeler & Garrett LLP.


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