New York Court of Appeals Rules on CPLR 214-c(4)

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Contributing Author: Jonathan Carr

On November 18, 2010, the State of New York Court of Appeals issued an important opinion on the interpretation of New York Civil Practice Law and Rule 214-c (4), which extends the statute of limitations for certain tort victims who do not, for some time, know the cause of their injuries.  The opinion, for the case John Giordano v. Market America, Inc. and the Chemins Company, Inc., Index 180, NYLJ 1202475093875, at *1 (Ct. of App., Decided November 18, 2010), answers the following three questions concerning CPLR 214-c(4) posed by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit to the State of New York Court of Appeals: “(1) Are the provisions of N.Y. C.P.L.R. 214-c(4) providing for an extension of the statute of limitations in certain circumstances limited to actions for injuries caused by the latent effects of exposure to a substance?”; (2) “Can an injury that occurs within 24 to 48 hours of exposure to a substance be considered ‘latent’ for these purposes?”; and (3) “What standards should be applied to determine whether a genuine issue of material fact exists for resolution by a trier of fact as to whether ‘technical, scientific or medical knowledge and information sufficient to ascertain the cause of injury’ was ‘discovered, identified or determined’ for N.Y. C.P.L.R. 214-c(4) purposes?”

The facts of the case underlying the answering of these three questions concerned allegations that the plaintiff suffered a series of strokes in March 1999 because of his use of ephedra, a substance contained in a dietary supplement that the plaintiff had been using for about two years.  The plaintiff contends that he became aware of a possible link between ephedra and stroke in February 2003 due to news reports.  Thus, over four years after his strokes, plaintiff sued the product distributor of ephedra in New York State Supreme Court.  The case was then removed to federal court, the product manufacturer of ephedra was added as a defendant, and the case was consolidated with other ephedra-related litigation in the Southern District of New York.  The defendants then moved to dismiss the case as barred by the statute of limitations, citing CPLR 214 (5), which states that “an action to recover damages for a personal injury” is subject to a three-year limitation period.  The district court granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss, and the plaintiff appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.  The Second Circuit then remanded the case so that the district court could determine an issue it had not reached.  And after the district court’s ruling on that issue, the Second Circuit then certified to the State of New York Court of Appeals the above three questions.

In its opinion, the State of New York Court of Appeals answered question one in the affirmative.  Specifically, the Court of Appeals held that the legislative history of CPLR 214-c was enacted in 1986 to provide plaintiffs relief in certain toxic tort cases and to overrule decisions in which New York courts had held that toxic tort claims commenced upon exposure, even if the illness resulting from that exposure was delayed until much later.  The Court of Appeals noted, “The Legislature’s concern when it enacted the statute was the problems raised by toxic tort cases in which the latency of a substance’s effect could prevent the plaintiff from bringing a timely lawsuit.”  The Court of Appeals added that the statute did not extend beyond “substance exposure cases.”

As to question two, the Court of Appeals also answered in the affirmative that an effect that appears within a “matter of hours” could be considered “latent.”  Specifically, the Court of Appeals noted that “It thus seems reasonable that the authors of CPLR 214-c (4) would have considered even a few hours of latency enough to justify the extension of the statute of limitations authorized by that subdivision.”  The Court of Appeals again noted the legislative history of the statute, citing the fact that the legislature in enacting the statute was not solely concerned with “long-term latency” (i.e. plaintiffs who were unaware that they had been injured “until after the limitations period had expired”) but also “short-term latency” (i.e. plaintiffs who, having already discovered they were injured, had not discovered “the cause of the injury”).

Finally, the Court of Appeals answered question three by stating that the “statute refers to the time when information is sufficient for the technical, medical, or scientific community ‘to ascertain’ the cause of an injury.” Furthermore, the Court of Appeals held that “a causal relatioship will be sufficiently ascertained for CPLR 214-c (4) purposes at, but not before, the point at which expert testimony to the existence of the relationship would be admissible in New York courts.”  The Court of Appeals added that it would not be reasonable to extend the statute of limitations until the time when a “reasonable lay person or lawyer” could determine the cause of injury without also consulting an expert.  Therefore, the Court of Appeals noted that “We see no unfairness in requiring that injured people who want to protect their rights seek out expert advice, rather than waiting for the media to bring a possible cause of the injury to their attention.”

This decision is important in helping understand the time periods for when causes of action will run under New York CPLR 214-c (4).  Importantly, the Court of Appeals did not apply its answer to question three to the facts of the ephedra case, as it determined that the federal courts dealing with these cases were more familiar with the science relating to the effects of ephedra.  Accordingly, as the federal courts review this opinion issued by the Court of Appeals, we will continue to monitor these cases to see how the federal courts apply the answers provided by the Court of Appeals.