The statute of limitations on asbestos claims was recently reevaluated by the Minnesota Supreme Court. In Palmer v. Walker Jamal Company, the court reinforces that the clock begins when the plaintiff learns they have an asbestos-related disease, rather than when they identify a specific product as a potential cause.
Gary Palmer (Decedent), diagnosed with mesothelioma in December 2011, learns the cause of his mesothelioma is from exposure to asbestos the next month. The following year, he files an asbestos-related product liability action in North Dakota. Ultimately, the trial court dismisses the case because North Dakota is not the appropriate jurisdiction. Deborah Palmer (Plaintiff), Decedent’s widow, refiles the lawsuit in Minnesota state court on February 23, 2018. The Plaintiff alleges that the Decedent developed mesothelioma after working around asbestos-containing brakes as a janitor at a car dealership.
The brake manufacturer files a motion for summary judgment under the six-year statute of limitations on asbestos claims. The claim, that the Decedent knew of his disease’s relationship to asbestos as late as January 2012. The district court grants the brake manufacturer’s summary judgment motion. The court concludes that the statute of limitations bars the Plaintiff’s claim. Filed more than six years after the Decedent learns that exposure to asbestos caused his mesothelioma, the claim is outside the timeline.
The Plaintiff appeals. Plaintiff argues that the statute of limitations on asbestos claims does not begin until the Decedent can identify a specific manufacturer’s asbestos-containing product as the source of his exposure. The court of appeals rejects the Plaintiff’s argument and the Minnesota Supreme Court grants a petition for further review.
The Court analyzes their previous opinion in DeCosse v. Armstrong Cork Co. There, a widow brought a wrongful death suit four years after her husband died of mesothelioma. This was after learning her husband’s disease may have been caused by asbestos exposure. In DeCosse, the Court held that “because of the unique character of asbestos-related deaths, wrongful death actions brought in connection with those deaths accrue either upon the manifestation of the fatal disease in a way that is causally linked to asbestos, or upon the date of death—whichever is earlier.” Mr. DeCosse’s illness was not causally linked to asbestos. Thus, the statute of limitations began to run at the date of his death.
The Palmer Court uses the analysis from DeCosse to determine when the Plaintiff’s wrongful death claim accrued. In January 2012, the Decedent first learns the cause of his mesothelioma is from exposure to asbestos. The clock begins. The Plaintiff argues the identity of an alleged tortfeasor is required for the statute of limitations to begin. The Court is not persuaded. The Court states that the discovery rule argument fails because “there is rarely a magic moment” when asbestos exposure can be said to have caused the disease, unlike many other tort claims.
Because of the unique nature of this type of ongoing tort, the Court reaffirms that a claim accrues on the date of death or the point at which the disease is linked to asbestos, whichever is earlier. As a result, the Plaintiff’s lawsuit is barred because the lawsuit should have been filed on or before January 2018.
Defendants in toxic tort matters have long been subject to courts’ unique interpretations of when the clock officially starts to run on the statute of limitations on asbestos claims. The Palmer decision, which refused to alter the timeline or grant the Plaintiff more time in an asbestos case, underscores the importance of assessing and asserting statute of limitation defenses when possible.