Griffin v. UNOCAL: a solution to the Garrett Conundrum and the end of the last exposure rule.

AuthorWomack, K. Beau


In Griffin v. UNOCAL, the Alabama Supreme Court overruled Garrett v. Raytheon (2) and its progeny. (3) Specifically, it changed the time at which the statute of limitations begins to run in a toxic-substance exposure case. Previously, the statute of limitations began on the date of last exposure. (4) Griffin adopted the reasoning from Justice Harwood's dissent in Cline v. Ashland (5) and changed the law such that the statute of limitations begins "only when there has occurred a manifest, present injury." (6)

This result is correct in that it solves what had been a puzzling situation for plaintiffs like the one in Griffin. Prior to Griffin:

[a] person exposed to a toxic substance having the potential to cause disease on a delayed basis, but who has suffered no manifest, present injury within two years thereafter, may not file an action within that two year period. If, after two years, that same person in fact suffers an injury from the exposure and files an action, the action will be dismissed on the basis that it should have been filed earlier. Thus, no matter when the person attempts to file the action, it is either too soon or too late. (7) However, obstacles still present difficulty in achieving a stable framework for products liability actions in toxic-substance exposure cases.

The first section of this Note discusses the legal background of the case. The second section recites the facts, the procedural posture, and the court's holding and reasoning. The third section analyzes the case and includes: (1) a discussion of whether the reasoning behind the holding was correct analyzing whether it was a proper use of judicial power; and (2) a discussion of a possible legislative response that would solidify the holding in Griffin and thus, avoid any future legal quandaries like the one left in the wake of Garrett.


A. Alabama Law

The Alabama Constitution states "It]hat all courts shall be open; and that every person, for any injury done him, in his lands, goods, person, or reputation, shall have a remedy by due process of law; and right and justice shall be administered without sale, denial, or delay." (8) In essence, the State of Alabama seeks to compensate those who have been injured. However, limitations regarding when actions on those injuries may be brought vary in length depending on the nature of the case. Causes of action based on contracts must be brought within ten years, (9) while actions such as false imprisonment, assault, battery, and trespass to real or personal property carry a six-year statute of limitations. (10) In contrast, actions based on an "injury to the person," such as the one in Griffin, must be commenced within two years. (11)

B. Historical Development of the Case

In Garrett, the court addressed the following question: "When does the statute of limitations begin to run for injuries suffered as a result of radiation exposure?" (12) The court affirmed the trial court and held that the statute begins to run when the plaintiff is "exposed to radiation and injury occurs." (13) In Garrett, the plaintiff was negligently exposed to radiation from 1955 to 1957. (14) Doctors, however, did not make a diagnosis until 1977. (15) In deciding Garrett, the court held that it was a "basic and long settled rule of construction ... that a statute of limitations begins to run ... from the time the cause of action 'accrues.'" (16) It further held that a "cause of action 'accrues' as soon as the party in whose favor it arises is entitled to maintain an action thereon." (17) Therefore, the Garrett court equated exposure to injury. It concluded that if a defendant was liable, an injury must have occurred. (18) Further, if the radiation was the cause of the injury, then the plaintiff sustained the injury, at the latest, on the day of the plaintiff's last exposure. (19)

The Garrett court, however, recognized two separate classes of cases. In discussing West Pratt Coal Company v. Dorman, (20) a land subsidence case from 1909, the court acknowledged that "there are cases where the act complained of does not itself constitute a legal injury at the time, but plaintiff's injury only comes as a result of, and in furtherance and subsequent development of, the act defendant has done." (21) In West Pratt, the defendant mining company owned the underlying minerals while the plaintiffs owned the surface. (22) The evidence showed that the defendant mined coal beneath the surface of the plaintiff's land. This mining created interference with the subjacent support causing the upper soil to later crack and subside. (23)

The evidence forced the court to decide whether a cause of action could lie when the mining took place more than one year before the filing of the suit. (24) The court held "that a cause of action accrues to the owner of the upper soil when the failure of support by the underlying strata, through causes put into operation by mining them, interferes with the utility and enjoyment of the superincumbent soil." (25) Essentially, the cause of action did not accrue when the mining occurred, but only when the surface actually subsided, impeding the land's utility. Thus, "the cause of action 'accrues,' and the statute of limitation begins to run, 'when, and only when the damages are sustained.'" (26)

The Garrett court analyzed a separate class of cases where "the act of which the injury is the natural sequence is of itself a legal injury to the plaintiff, a completed wrong." (27) In this type of case, the cause of action accrues when the injury occurs, not when the damages are sustained. The Garrett majority held that the injury occurred at the time of exposure. (28) This decision placed the plaintiff's claim in the latter classification. (29) The court went on to state:

It is simply that all the progressive nature of the injury has not made itself manifest at the time of the last exposure. But, we have held that the statute begins to run 'whether or not the full amount of damages is apparent at the time of the first legal injury' or not. (30) In arriving at their definition of "date of injury," the majority relied on Garren v. Commercial Union Insurance Company. (31) The dissent points out, however, that Garren dealt with a workmen's compensation claim while the Garrett court based its deci sion on a common law tort claim. (32) Nevertheless, the majority said that the claim distinction by itself did not change the meaning of "date of injury" for non-workmen's compensation cases. (33)

The Garrett majority also relied in part on American Mutual Liability Insurance Company v. Agricola Furnace Company. (34) In that case, an employee was exposed to dust and metal particles that circulated in her improperly ventilated workspace. (35) After ten years of exposure, she ultimately contracted silicosis and tuberculosis. (36) The court held "that recovery for a continuous tort could be had only for those damages which occurred within the period of limitations." (37)

Similarly, the Agricola case and others led the Garrett court to hold that public policy in the State of Alabama requires that a so-called "discovery rule" does not apply and that a statute of limitations begins to run from the date of injury. In each of those cases, the statute of limitations barred the plaintiffs' claims. This trend helped guide the court in Garrett to hold that the correct rule was "last exposure" as opposed to discovery.

The Garrett court's ultimate reasoning stated that "[i]f the plaintiff was Not [sic] injured in 1955-1957, then defendant committed No [sic] negligent act at that time which Resulted [sic] in Injury [sic] and defendant would not be liable. If plaintiff did become Injured [sic] or Damaged [sic] at that time, the statute of limitations has run." (38) Despite the attractiveness of the dissent's view, the majority said that adopting it would require "overruling dozens of Alabama cases and departing from well-established principles of law laid down over the past 60 years" as well as "usurping the Inherent [sic] power of the legislature." (39)

The Garrett court called on the legislature to take action, (40) which was forthcoming later that year. In what was codified as [section] 6-5-500 through [section] 6-5-504, the legislature added a "discovery rule" for latent injuries or injuries that, by their nature, are not discoverable by the exercise of reasonable diligence at the time of its occurrence. (41) The intent of the legislature was to "assure the rights of all persons" by providing for "the fair, orderly, and efficient administration of product liability actions in the courts of [Alabama]." (42) Further, it intended to create "a comprehensive time framework" for commencement of actions and for discoverability of actions based on latent injuries or injuries that are, by their nature, not reasonably discoverable at the time of their occurrence. (43) However, part of the legislation stated that:

[E]ach section, clause, provision, or portion of this division shall be construed as inseparable and non-severable from all others, and in the event that any section, clause, provision, or portion of this division shall be held invalid or unconstitutional by any court of competent jurisdiction, the entire division and each section, clause, provision, or portion thereof shall be inoperative and have no effect. (44) Simply put, this section made the Act nonseverable by giving it an all or nothing character that eventually spelled the end of the legislature's attempt to rectify the confusing situation...

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