In an opinion filed on September 25, 2014, the California Court of Appeal, Sixth Appellate District concluded that a child born with birth defects, allegedly caused byin utero exposures to toxic chemicals, could avoid having her claim barred by application of the statute of limitations for injuries based on toxic exposures.
In Nguyen v. Western Digital Corporation (Santa Clara County Super. Ct. No. 110CV186748), a minor plaintiff, Hanh Nguyen, was born on August 11, 1994 with agenesis of the corpus callosum (a birth defect affecting the structure of the brain) allegedly caused by her mother's occupational exposure to toxic chemicals while employed in "clean rooms" at Western Digital Corporation, one of the largest manufacturers of storage devices in the technology industry. Although the birth defect was obvious at the time of birth, the plaintiff did not file an action until October 25, 2010, two years after the family heard a radio advertisement causing them to connect Hanh Nguyen's birth defects with in utero chemical exposures.
In toxic exposure cases, the California statute of limitations requires an individual alleging harm from exposure to toxic chemicals to bring an action within two years of the time that he or she possesses sufficient facts to put a reasonable person on notice that the injury was caused by the wrongful actions of another. (Cal. Code Civ. Proc., § 340.8) However, in birth defect cases, the statute of limitations requires that an action by or on behalf of a minor for personal injuries sustained before or in the course of his or her birth are commenced within six years of the date of birth. (Cal. Code Civ. Proc., § 340.4) Accordingly, in Nguyen the court was forced to reconcile two competing applications of the statute of limitations. Application of section 340.4 would bar Hanh Nguyen's claims, which must have been filed by August 11, 2000, whereas application of section 340.8 would allow for Hanh Nguyen's claim to be timely filed by October 25, 2010.
The court ultimately held that "claims based on pre-birth injuries that are due to exposure to hazardous materials or toxic substances are subject to the limitations period in section 340.8." Further the court held that although section 340.8 did not take effect until January 1, 2004, almost 10 years after the plaintiff was born, it applied in this case because Western Digital concealed the fact that chemicals used in its facilities could potentially cause reproductive harm. Accordingly, the court held that the statute of limitations was tolled until section 340.8 took effect and up until the point where plaintiff first learned of the possible cause of the birth defects.
The purpose of the statute of limitations is to strike a balance between competing interests—the ability of a plaintiff to recover for a meritorious claim on the one hand, and the unfairness of forcing a defendant to defend against possibly false allegations when essential evidence may no longer be available. However, the ruling in Nguyen v. Western Digital Corporation places defendants in just the kind of poorly defensible position that the statute of limitations aims to prevent. Now, defendants in toxic exposure cases involving in utero exposure to hazardous substances resulting in birth defects can no longer definitively rely on the six year statute of limitations that generally applies to all birth defect claims under section 340.4. Accordingly, defendants are now vulnerable to toxic tort claims long after any instance of alleged hazardous exposure and it is necessary for defendants to maintain records and diligently pursue evidence that will allow them to assert a statute of limitations defense in these kinds of delayed birth defect actions.