In a 5-4 decision, the Alabama Supreme Court reversed direction and allowed lawsuits from workers who become ill many years after being exposed to dangerous chemicals.
The majority said the two-year statute of limitations for filing suit begins to run when an injury manifests itself. That overruled a 1979 decision, where the court said the window for filing suit began to run at the last exposure to the chemicals — a standard that made it impossible for workers to sue if the illness did not show up for many years.
“It takes courage to recognize the court has made a mistake in the past and to correct the mistake,” said Birmingham attorney Bob Palmer, who has been pushing the court to make the change for four years.
Palmer said the 1979 ruling created a “Catch-22” for workers. Alabama law provided they couldn’t sue until they had an injury, but the court had ruled the window for suing began at the last exposure. Lawsuits over illnesses that took years to develop were effectively barred, he said.
In the case ruled on Friday, Palmer represented Brenda Sue Sanford Griffin, who sued several chemical companies on behalf of her late husband, David Wayne Griffin. She claimed that his exposure to several chemicals while working at a Tuscaloosa tire plant from 1973-1993 led to his diagnosis with leukemia in 2003 and his death in 2004.
Her wrongful death suit was filed in 2006, within the time frame for a wrongful death claim. But a Tuscaloosa County judge tossed it out, based on the Supreme Court’s 1979 decision, because her husband didn’t have legal standing to sue due to his illness being discovered more than two years after his last exposure. For a wrongful death suit to proceed, the deceased had to have legal standing, and her late husband didn’t.
Griffin appealed to the Supreme Court. Siding with her, allowing her suit to proceed, were Justices Sue Bell Cobb, Champ Lyons, Tom Woodall, Tom Parker and Glenn Murdock.
Dissenting were Justices Harold See, Lyn Stuart, Patti Smith and Mike Bolin.
A year ago, the Supreme Court had decided a similar “toxic tort” case involving Jack Cline by a 5-4 margin, but that decision left the 1979 ruling intact. Since last year’s decision, two justices on the Supreme Court have changed.
Murdock, a Republican, replaced Republican Justice Bernard Harwood, but he had the same view of the litigation as Harwood. Cobb, the court’s only Democrat, replaced Republican Justice Drayton Nabers, and their views were opposite. That change allowed the Supreme Court to switch directions with the Griffin case.
“You change the court; you change the law. Everybody knows that,” said George Walker, a Mobile lawyer who represented Unocal Corp. in the Griffin case.
In dissent, See said the majority was getting into the Legislature’s business to write state laws. But in the ruling Friday, the majority held that the 1979 decision erroneously construed the existing law.
The Supreme Court said its decision applies to future cases along with Griffin’s, which can proceed. It does not reopen the Cline case from last year, said Palmer, who also represented Cline’s family.
Walker, the defense attorney, said that in future cases, it will be difficult for plaintiffs to prove that exposure many years earlier led to a disease. He predicted plaintiffs will try to keep defendants in court until they decide to settle rather than litigate.
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