Earlier this week, the Paraquat MDL judge (Hon. Nancy Rosenstengel) partially granted motions to dismiss filed by the defendants. Despite getting some of the plaintiffs’ minor claims dismissed, the decision was a defeat for the defense. Judge Rosenstengel flatly rejected the defendants’ primary argument that many of the plaintiffs’ claims should be time-barred under the applicable state statutes of repose.
Background of the Paraquat Litigation
Paraquat is an industrial-strength herbicide that is banned is used in commercial agriculture in the U.S. for various purposes. Plaintiffs in the Paraquat litigation allege that they developed Parkinson’s disease from exposure to Paraquat manufactured and/or distributed by the defendants. Hundreds of Paraquat lawsuits have been filed and consolidated into the MDL.
Plaintiffs allege that Paraquat enters the human body through absorption, inhalation, or ingestion. Paraquat then enters the bloodstream and, ultimately, the brain. There, Paraquat molecules cause damage and destruction to dopamine-producing neurons, leading to impaired signaling between neurons and causing the brain to lose control over motor function.
Many epidemiological studies have found an association between Paraquat exposure and Parkinson’s disease, including studies finding a five-fold or greater increase in the risk of Parkinson’s disease in people with occupational exposure. The defendants had knowledge of these studies, as well as the relationship between Paraquat exposure and Parkinson’s disease, yet actively concealed this information.
Defense Motions to Dismiss
The Paraquat plaintiffs advance numerous tort claims against the defendants, Syngenta, the primary manufacturer of Paraquat products, and Chevron, the exclusive U.S. distributor of Paraquat until 1986. These theories include strict product liability—design defect; strict product liability—failure to warn; negligence; public nuisance, violation of state consumer protection statutes; and breach of implied warranty of merchantability.
In October, the defendants (Syngenta and Chevron) both filed motions to dismiss asserting identical legal arguments and seeking the same relief. The motions asserted that most of the plaintiffs’ claims should be dismissed because they are time-barred by applicable state statutes of repose. This argument applied to all plaintiffs in the MDL from the following 6 states that have a statute of repose: Illinois, Georgia, Connecticut, Iowa, Indiana, and North Carolina.
The motion to dismiss also targeted some of the lesser claims that the plaintiffs were asserting. Specifically, the motion sought dismissal of the plaintiffs’ claims for public nuisance. The defendants also asked to court to dismiss most of the warranty and consumer protection claims set forth by the plaintiffs.
Court Rejects Defendants’ Statute of Repose Argument
A statute of repose places an outer limit on the right to bring a civil action. The deadline for a statute of repose is not measured from when the “claim accrues” but instead from the date of the last culpable act or omission of the defendant. In their motion, the defendants argued that the last culpable act or omission of the defendants occurred years or even decades ago and, therefore, the statute of response bars the claims.
In response, the plaintiffs countered that in at least 3 of the states at issue (Iowa, Indiana, and North Carolina) the applicable statutes of repose do not apply to allegations involving exposure to an inherently dangerous substance that causes a latent disease.
The MDL judge agreed with this argument. Addressing the law of each state separately, judge Rosenstengel found that the plaintiffs were alleging that their Paraquat exposure cause them to develop a “latent disease” and, therefore, the statutes of repose did not apply to plaintiffs from these states.
With respect to the 3 other states at issue (Illinois, Georgia, and Connecticut), the plaintiffs countered that the statutes of repose were tolled because the defendants fraudulently concealed the known dangers of Paraquat use. Specifically, the plaintiffs assert that the defendants knew or should have known that Paraquat could cause neurologic damage. They further contend that the individual plaintiffs were ignorant of this danger because of the defendants’ effort to conceal the harmful nature of their product.
Addressing the applicable law of each state separately, judge Rosenstengel held that the plaintiffs had adequately alleged the elements of fraudulent concealment in each state.
[T]he allegations in Plaintiffs’ complaint are sufficient to establish fraudulent concealment of the cause of action. They allege that Defendants had a duty to disclose the hazards of Paraquat and their failure to do so constitutes a false representation; Defendants made affirmative false representations about the safety of Paraquat; Defendants made those representations with the intent to deceive Plaintiffs; and Plaintiffs relied on this intentional concealment to their detriment, as the concealment prevented Plaintiffs from learning about the cause of action through the exercise of ordinary diligence.
Judge Rosenstengel denied the defendants’ motion to dismiss based on the statutes of response in all states. This ruling alone effectively handed the defense a decisive loss because the statute of response dismissal was the core objective of the motions.
Plaintiffs’ Public Nuisance Claims are Dismissed
In their motions, the defendants also sought dismissal of the public nuisance claims asserted by many of the paraquat plaintiffs. The defendants argued that under well-established law, public nuisance claims are not applicable to pure product liability cases unless there is some additional element of wrongdoing that creates a public nuisance (e.g., product manufacturer causes toxic runoff into public waterway).
Judge Rosenstengel agreed with the defendants on this point. She found that the plaintiffs’ public nuisance claims were essentially repackaged product liability claims rather than “an action truly to address a public nuisance.”
Court Dismisses Minnesota Consumer Protection Claims
The defendants also sought dismissal of the plaintiffs’ consumer protection claims under a number of states’ laws. Judge Rosentstengel granted dismissal of the Minnesota consumer protection claims. But the court rejected the request for dismissal as to all other states.