Products Liability Law Daily Food worker’s claims against flavoring manufacturers not barred by statute of limitations
Thursday, January 7, 2021

Food worker’s claims against flavoring manufacturers not barred by statute of limitations

By David Yucht, J.D.

In determining statute of limitations issues, Iowa applies the discovery rule, under which commencement of the limitations period is delayed until a plaintiff knows, or exercising reasonable care should have known, both the fact of the injury and its cause.

A federal district court in Iowa ruled that a reasonable jury could find, based on the discovery rule, that a worker at a popcorn plant was not on inquiry notice that his injuries were due to his work exposure to flavorings and diacetyl until he was diagnosed in 2017 with flavoring-related bronchiolitis obliterans syndrome and, consequently his 2018 filing of a complaint against the flavoring manufacturers was well within Iowa’s two-year statute of limitations. Accordingly, the court denied the manufacturers’ summary judgment motion (Thiele v. BASF Corp., January 6, 2021, Strand, L.).

A worker was employed at a popcorn company as a mixer, which required him to hand-pour flavorings into large mixing tanks. His job had a respiratory protection program that required employees to wear protection during work tasks to reduce respiratory risks associated with the flavorings and diacetyl that could affect the ability to breathe. Additionally, the worker took quarterly pulmonary function tests (PFTs) administered by an onsite nurse; he needed to have 80 per cent pulmonary function to continue working. He first noticed breathing difficulties around March 2005. The first time he was informed that his PFT went below eighty per cent was in May 2007. Thereafter, he saw a pulmonologist who told him that he had breathing issues. The worker testified, however, that the doctor told him his breathing issues were not job-related. He also testified that he did not discover he had lung disease related to his work until he was diagnosed with flavoring-related bronchiolitis obliterans syndrome on November 19, 2017.

The worker filed his complaint against flavor manufacturers on September 12, 2018, asserting claims against the flavor manufacturers for negligence; strict product liability-design; manufacturing and inherent defects; strict product liability-failure to warn; and strict product liability-failure to instruct. Flavor manufacturer Givaudan Flavors Corporation moved for summary judgment, arguing that these claims were barred by Iowa’s two-year statute of limitations. Two other flavor manufacturers, Sensient Flavors and DSM Food Specialties USA, Inc., joined the motion.

Statute of limitations. The court denied the manufacturers’ motion. The manufacturers argued that the claims were barred by Iowa’s two-year statute of limitations because there was no genuine issue that the worker had knowledge of his injury and its cause, or was on inquiry notice, more than two years before he filed his lawsuit. In considering timeliness of personal injury claims, Iowa courts apply the “discovery rule,” whereby commencement of limitations periods are delayed until the injured party “knows or in the exercise of reasonable care should have known both the fact of the injury and its cause.” Once a party obtains information that “would alert a reasonable person of the need to investigate,” that party “is on inquiry notice of all facts that would have been disclosed by a reasonably diligent investigation.”

Here, the court disagreed with the manufacturers’ contention that it was undisputed that the worker knew or should have known the fact of his injury in 2005 when he first began experiencing symptoms. Although there was no issue that the worker knew or should have known by the end of 2007 that he was suffering from a respiratory injury, there was a genuine issue concerning whether the worker knew or should have known the cause of his injury more than two years before he filed suit. It was not clear whether the pulmonologist who the worker saw in 2007 communicated to the worker the information he provided to the worker’s employer. When viewing the facts in the light most favorable to the worker, a reasonable jury could find that the pulmonologist told the worker that his breathing issues were not related to his work at the company and that it was reasonable for the worker to rely on this information.

The case is No. 5:18-cv-04081-LTS-CFB.

Attorneys: Dennis M. McElwain (Smith & McElwain Law Office) for Jason Thiele. Daryna Ternavska (Faegre Drinker Biddle & Reath LLP) for BASF Corp. Constantine Dino Haloulos (McCullough Ginsberg & Partners LLP) for DSM Food Specialties USA, Inc. Alan E. Fredregill (Heidman Redmond Fredregill Patterson Plaza Dykstra & Prahl LLP) and J. Philip Calabrese (Porter Wright Morris & Arthur LLP) for Givaudan Flavors Corp. Matthew T. E. Early (Fitzgibbons Law Firm) and Lee M. Seese (Michael Best & Friedrich LLP) for Sensient Flavors International, Inc.

Companies: BASF Corp.; DSM Food Specialties USA, Inc.; Givaudan Flavors Corp.; Sensient Flavors International, Inc.

MainStory: TopStory SofLReposeNews ChemicalNews FoodBeveragesNews IowaNews

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