State Supreme Court Rejects Tolling Based on Prior Class Action

A state's supreme court ruled earlier this month that the filing of a putative class action in another state does not stop the clock on the running of the Virginia statute of limitations for absent class members.  See Casey v. Merck & Co.,  No. 111438 (Va., 3/2/12).

The issue arose in the context of the Fosamax litigation and the somewhat unique civil procedure of Virginia.  On September 15, 2005, a putative class action, Wolfe v. Merck & Co., was filed in the United States District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee. The putative class included "[a]ll persons who consume or have consumed FOSAMAX, whether intravenously or by mouth." The representative plaintiffs in the class action asserted claims of strict liability, negligence, and medical monitoring against Merck.  The case became part of the MDL for this product, and the MDL court denied class certification in 2008.  But prior to the dismissal of the Wolfe putative class action, four plaintiffs, all residents of Virginia, filed individual state law based actions against Merck in the Southern District of New York, asserting federal diversity jurisdiction. It was undisputed that all four plaintiffs filed suit more than two years after the latest possible date that they sustained their respective alleged injuries, and that Virginia law applied to their claims.

Defendant naturally moved for summary judgment, alleging that the four plaintiffs’ actions were untimely under Virginia's two-year statute of limitations for personal injuries. In response, the plaintiffs claimed that the Wolfe putative class action, which was filed within the two-year limitation period, tolled the running of the Virginia statute of limitations on their individual actions because they would have been members of the proposed class had certification been granted.

The district court agreed with defendant, but on appeal the Second Circuit certified, asking the Virginia Supreme Court to determine whether Virginia law permits equitable or statutory tolling of a Virginia statute of limitations due to the pendency of a putative class action in another jurisdiction.

The court began from the proposition that limitations periods are a creature of statute, and a statute of limitations may not be tolled, or an exception applied, in the absence of a clear statutory enactment to such effect. Any doubt must be resolved in favor of the enforcement of the statute. Given these principles, there was no authority in Virginia jurisprudence for the equitable tolling of a statute of limitations based upon the pendency of a putative class action in another jurisdiction.

As for statutory tolling, Virginia Code § 8.01-229(E)(1) provided that, “If any action is commenced within the prescribed limitations period and for any cause abates or is dismissed without determining the merits, the time such action is pending shall not be computed as part of the period within which such action may be brought, and another action may be brought within the remaining period.”  The plaintiffs contended that Code § 8.01-229(E)(1) statutorily tolled the statute of limitations for plaintiffs’ claims during the pendency of the putative class action, and that the court's decision in Welding, Inc. v. Bland Cnty. Serv. Auth., 261 Va. 218, 541 S.E.2d 909 (2001), indicated that Virginia had recognized cross-jurisdictional putative class action tolling.

In Welding, the court had stated that, under Virginia law, an action filed in a foreign jurisdiction may indeed trigger tolling under the Code section. Although there is no particular type of action that must be filed and no particular jurisdiction in which that action must be brought for the commencement of an action to trigger tolling under Code § 8.01-229(E)(1), for tolling to be permitted, the subsequently filed action must be filed by the same party in interest on the same cause of action in the same right.  Welding differed from the instant case because it concerned a situation where the same plaintiff initially sued in federal court on the same cause of action he subsequently pursued in state court. The plaintiff in both actions was clearly the same. In the instant matter, said the court, it is undisputed that the four plaintiffs were not named plaintiffs in the putative class action that they claim triggered the tolling. They were merely absent members of a putative class that included everyone in the country who had taken this drug.

For the filing of an action to toll the statute of limitations from running on a subsequently filed action, there must be a true identity of the parties in the two lawsuits. In other words, for the statute of limitations to be tolled for a subsequent action, the party who brought the original action must be the same as the plaintiff in the subsequent action or a recognized representative of that plaintiff asserting the same cause and right of action. A putative class action is a representative action in which a representative plaintiff attempts to represent the interests of not only named plaintiffs, but also those of unnamed class members. But Virginia jurisprudence does not recognize class actions. Under Virginia law, a class representative who files a putative class action is not recognized as having standing to sue in a representative capacity on behalf of the unnamed members of the putative class. Thus, under Virginia law, there is no identity of parties between the named plaintiff in a putative class action and the plaintiff in a subsequent action filed by a putative class member individually. Accordingly, a putative class action cannot toll the limitations period for unnamed putative class members under Virginia law.

Certified questions answered in the negative.

  

Dismissal of Bellwether Case in FEMA MDL Upheld

The plaintiff who at one time had been the first-in-line bellwether plaintiff in the FEMA Trailer MDL has lost her appeal of the dismissal of her claims. In Re: Fema Trailer Formaldehyde Products Liability Litigation (Alana Alexander, plaintiff), No. 10-30451(5th Cir. June 24, 2011).

Plaintiffs sued the government, alleging exposure to potentially dangerous, high levels of formaldehyde in their Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) provided emergency housing unit. Following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, FEMA provided EHUs to the displaced victims of the storms. The hurricanes’ destruction created an urgent and immediate need for an unprecedented number of EHUs. In response, FEMA purchased more than 140,000 new EHUs from manufacturers and dealers. Alexander and her children were among the Louisiana residents who received an EHU. The Alexander family moved into their EHU in May 2006 and almost immediately noticed a “chemical smell” in the unit that caused the children's asthma to worsen. Other physical manifestations allegedly  included  irritation, burning, and tearing of the eyes; irritation and burning of nasal membranes; eczema; headaches; difficulty breathing; wheezing; shortness of breath; and new allergies and worsening allergies.

Alexander admitted that she knew the smell came from the EHU. Shortly after moving in, Alexander claimed, she asked an unidentified Government representative or contractor about  the smell. She claimed that he told her that that the smell was “nothing to worry about.”

In July, 2008, Alexander submitted an administrative claim with FEMA and in early 2009 filed a complaint in the district court, alleging under the Federal Tort Claims Act that the Government was careless, reckless, grossly negligent, and acted with deliberate indifference by failing to disclose the exposure to potentially dangerous and high levels of formaldehyde in the trailers.

Defendant moved to dismiss the complaint as untimely (in cases where the government has waived sovereign immunity, the statute of limitations issue is jurisdictional). Although the FTCA does not define when a claim accrues, it is well-settled that a tort action under the FTCA accrues when the plaintiff knows or has reason to know of the alleged injury that is the basis of the action. The trial court dismissed the case, and plaintiff appealed.

On appeal, Alexander argued that the accrual of her claim was delayed or tolled pursuant to either: (1) the discovery rule, (2) equitable estoppel, or (3) the continuing tort doctrine. The 5th Circuit found these arguments were without merit.

There was no dispute that Alexander was aware of the injuries by May 2006. When the family moved into the trailer in May 2006, almost immediately, the asthma worsened, and the kids
experienced a plethora of other health issues. The primary dispute was thus whether  Alexander knew or in the exercise of reasonable diligence should have discovered the cause of the  injuries such that her claim accrued at that time.

Plaintiff claimed she did not discover the Government’s role in the alleged injuries until July 2007, when FEMA issued its second round of flyers about formaldehyde emissions in the EHUs. This argument was "not convincing."  The court of appeals held that plaintiff had enough information regarding the injury and its cause by May 2006 that would lead a reasonable person in plaintiff's  position to further investigate the specific cause of that injury. All the facts were not in the control of the putative defendant, unavailable to the plaintiff or at least very difficult to obtain. Plaintiff could have established FEMA’s connection to the EHU, from which the “chemical smell” was emanating.

Second, plaintiff argued that because she reasonably relied on the claims of the representative that there was “nothing to worry about,” the limitations period should be equitably tolled. Because the limitations periods in statutes waiving sovereign immunity are jurisdictional, the district court properly held that equitable tolling did not apply to this case. 

Finally, Plaintiff could not cite any Fifth Circuit case law indicating that accrual should be delayed when the plaintiff knows about the injury and could have discovered, with a reasonable inquiry, the putative defendant’s, here the Government’s, potential liability. The court thus declined the invitation to apply the continuing tort doctrine to the facts presented in this case.

Supreme Court Declines to Clarify Tolling Effect of Mass Tort Class Actions

Earlier this week, the Supreme Court declined to take a case raising the tricky issues of cross-jurisdictional class action tolling.  Novartis Pharmaceuticals Corp. v. Stevens, No. 10-1196 (U.S., certiorari denied 5/31/11).

The question presented in the cert petition was whether was whether tolling the statute  of limitations for individual claimants based on the pendency of a mass personal injury class action violates fundamental federal due process protections where the class action provides no notice to a defendant of the identity of unnamed class members, thus absolutely precluding the timely preservation of evidence and testimony critical to presenting an effective defense.

Defendant/petitioner has been involved for several years in litigation claiming that the drug Zometa is linked to osteonecrosis of the jaw or “ONJ.”  Plaintiff below obtained a jury verdict on such a claim, affirmed by the Montana Supreme Court . 358 Mont. 474, 247 P.3d 244 (2010). The sole aspect of the Montana Supreme Court’s opinion at issue here was its ruling that the pendency of a never-certified federal class action on ONJ acts to resurrect respondent’s otherwise time-barred personal injury claims. The Montana Supreme Court determined as a matter of first impression in Montana that federal class action tolling should apply to render timely respondent’s complaint against petitioner. The Montana court noted that the concept of federal class action tolling was articulated by the Supreme Court in American Pipe & Construction Co. v. Utah, 414 U.S. 538 (1974). In American Pipe, the Court held that in some contexts, the commencement of the class action suit satisfied the purpose of the limitation provision as to all those who might subsequently participate in the suit as well as for the named plaintiffs. One reason was concerns of judicial economy, as a contrary holding might invite a multiplicity of activity that the federal rules of procedure were designed to avoid, as individual plaintiffs would be forced to file preventative motions to join or intervene as parties if the class action status was still pending at the expiration of the statute of limitations.

The problem is that in the specific context of a personal injury mass tort, the application of American Pipe federal class action tolling seems to infringe on a defendant’s ability to defend itself -- in violation of due process principles. Suspending statutes of limitation indefinitely for all purported members of the kinds of  “worldwide” classes we see of personal injury plaintiffs, based on nothing more than the filing a Rule 23 federal class action, introduces systemic unfairness to defendants. 

A  pharmaceutical personal injury case may be an especially poor vehicle for federal class action tolling. Virtually no pharmaceutical personal injury class action has been certified over opposition and survived appeal in the federal system for a decade now. See, e.g., Jolly v. Eli Lilly & Co., 751 P.2d 923, 933-38 (Cal. 1988) (en banc) (rejecting tolling due to pending personal injury class action because such torts are not susceptible to class action certification). Tolling individual  actions based on a pending personal injury class action renders limitations periods impermissibly uncertain and invites unnecessary litigation by giving plaintiffs’ counsel everywhere an incentive to add putative class relief to every federal complaint just to toll statutes of limitations to the benefit of unknown future plaintiffs -- knowing there will never be a certified class.  Some lower courts have thus concluded that class action tolling should not be applied in the mass tort context unless the defendant had actual notice of the identities of unnamed class members.

Petitioner argued that tolling the limitations period for all purported members of the class during the pendency of class certification proceedings – which in a mass class action can take years – creates an unacceptable risk that by the time the claims of unnamed individuals are adjudicated, evidence critical to defending claims of that individual plaintiff will have been lost.  Issues relating to exposures, learned intermediaries, concurrent risk factors, specific (as opposed to general) causation, proximate causation regarding warnings, and assumption of the risk, all involve evidence that can be both peculiar to the individual plaintiff, and turn out to be the central evidence in the action.

Perhaps because of unique procedural issues below (involving fictitious parties), however, the Court passed on the opportunity to address these serious issues.