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California limitations period no bar to claim of prenatal exposure to toxic chemicals at mother’s workplace

By Kathleen Bianco, J.D.

The California Supreme Court reversed a decision granting summary judgment to Sony Electronics in a suit claiming it was liable for a minor’s birth defects and permanent injuries caused by prenatal exposure to toxic substances during her mother’s employment. In reaching this conclusion, the state high court rejected the lower courts’ findings that the limitations period for claims based on prenatal injuries was not supplanted by the limitations period established for personal injuries arising from exposure to hazardous materials or toxic substances, which allows the tolling of the limitations period during the time the injured party is a minor or incapacitated (Lopez v. Sony Electronics, Inc., July 5, 2018, Corrigan, J.).

The minor was 12 years old when, by and through her mother and guardian ad litem, she brought an action against Sony Electronics, Inc. for negligence strict liability, willful misconduct, and intentional misrepresentation based on allegations that during her mother’s employment with Sony—including during her pregnancy—she had been exposed for prolonged periods of time to chemicals that caused numerous birth defects. These defects included fusion of cervical vertebrae, facial asymmetry, dysplastic nails, diverticulum of the bladder, and a misshapen kidney. The minor also had experienced developmental delays.

Moving for summary judgment, Sony argued that the six-year statute of limitations on prenatal injury actions barred the claims. A state trial court and a state appellate court agreed, granting Sony’s motion for summary judgment. The plaintiff appealed to the California Supreme Court.

Statutes at issue. Section 340.4 of the California Code of Civil Procedure, which Sony argued applied as a bar to this action, imposes a six-year statute of limitations for birth and pre-birth injuries and expressly provides that there is no tolling of the limitations period under Section 352 during a plaintiff’s minority. Section 380.8, which the plaintiff claimed governed the case, sets a shorter two-year limitations period for tort actions for injuries caused by exposure to hazardous materials and toxic substances, but allows for the tolling of the limitations period during a plaintiff’s minority.

Decision. The state high court began its analysis by explaining that both limitations sections were unambiguous on their face under the plain meaning rule and that both could be read to govern the action at bar. In attempting to harmonize two seemingly inconsistent statutes to determine which applied to the case at hand, the court explained that the statutory language alone did not answer the question as to which limitations period the legislature intended to apply to claims for prenatal injuries caused by exposure to toxic substances. As a result, the court examined the legislative history to determine which statute should apply.

Based on its review of the legislative history for both provisions, the state high court concluded that the toxic exposure statute controlled because it encompasses “any civil action” arising from exposure to a hazardous material or a toxic substance subject to two exceptions: asbestos and medical malpractice. The court reasoned that had the legislature not intended for the toxic exposure limitations period to apply to prenatal cases, it would have excepted such claims from coverage along with the asbestos and medical malpractice claims. Furthermore, the state high court found that the application of the toxic exposure limitations period to prenatal claims did not produce absurd results as alleged by the lower courts. Thus, based on the high court’s analysis, the plaintiff’s action was not time-barred. Accordingly, the matter was remanded to the trial court with directions to vacate its order granting summary judgment to Sony.