Plaintiffs alleged that hazardous radioactive and nonradioactive substances produced by defendants, Boeing North American, Inc. and Rockwell International Corp., caused their illnesses. The specific issue on review was whether plaintiffs' claims were timely filed under California's statute of limitations. The plaintiffs were fifty-two individuals residing in the San Fernando or Simi Valley of California, who suffered various cancers and illnesses including: cancers of the thyroid, brain, cervix, breast, lung, ovaries, bladder, prostate, pancreas, and stomach; leukemia; lymphoma; hypothyroidism; infertility; and multiple chemical sensitivity sensory neuropathy. Defendants owned and operated the Rocketdyne facility, located near plaintiffs' residences. The Rocketdyne facility conducted testing of rocket and energy technologies involving various radioactive contaminants and nonradioactive hazardous chemicals.
In 1997, six plaintiffs filed a complaint alleging state tort claims and a claim under the Price-Anderson Act alleging injuries from Rocketdyne's nuclear accidents. In June 1997, a number of plaintiffs joined the complaint; in December 1997, more plaintiffs joined the complaint; and in March 1998, a final group of plaintiffs joined the complaint. The plaintiffs claimed that they discovered a link between the Rocketdyne facility and an increased risk of cancer in a University of California, Los Angeles study released on September 11, 1997. Therefore, the plaintiffs claimed that the statute of limitations began to run in September 1997.
The district court granted the defendants' motion for summary
judgment because it found that the California statute of limitations barred the
plaintiffs' state law tort claims. In California, "a plaintiff has one year
from the date of injury to bring a personal injury or wrongful death claim." However,
a court could apply the delayed discovery rule of California or of the
Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability
Act (CERCLA), which does not impose a statute of limitations but imposes a standard for determining when the statute of limitations should toll.
The district court found that the federal CERCLA delayed-discovery rule and that of the state were the same. Thus, the district court held that the plaintiffs' claims were untimely because the "[p]laintiffs suspected or should have suspected the cause of their illnesses more than one year before they filed their claims." In reversing the district court's finding, the Ninth Circuit explained that the federal and state standards were not the same.
The Ninth Circuit reviewed the district court's grant of defendants' summary judgment motion de novo. The Ninth Circuit found that CERCLA's discovery rule was not the same as the rule applied in California. The CERCLA rule required that for actual or constructive notice, a plaintiff must know "both the existence and the cause of his injury," while the California rule required that a "plaintiff suspects or should suspect that her injury was caused by wrongdoing." Thus, the court found that the federal rule was more generous and therefore preempted the state rule. In addition, the court explained that a plaintiff did not need a CERCLA claim for a court to apply the CERCLA rule. Thus, the Ninth Circuit held that the district court's grant of defendants' motion for summary judgment was improper. The court reasoned that the record did not support the district court's ruling that the only inference to be made was that the "[p]laintiffs knew or suspected the cause of their injuries more than one year before filing their claims."
Instead, the Ninth Circuit applied a two-part test to determine when plaintiffs reasonably knew or should have known of their claim. The first part of the test inquired into when "a reasonable person in [p]laintiffs' situation would have been expected to inquire about the cause of his or her injury." The second part of the test considered whether an inquiry (by a plaintiff on inquiry notice) "would have disclosed the nature and cause of plaintiff's injury so as to put him on notice of his claim."
With respect to the first part of the test, the court considered whether there were a number of other potential causes of plaintiffs' injuries. For example, the Ninth Circuit explained that "'[t]here are many suspected causes of cancer, many of which are natural or non-negligent and would not give rise to a legal cause of action.'" Thus, the court concluded that a determination that a reasonable person knew or should have known that their injuries were caused by the Rocketdyne facility depended on "whether a reasonable person would have inquired about the cause of his injury in light of public knowledge about the causes of cancer and other latent diseases, including publicity about the release of hazardous substance from the Rocketdyne facilities as well as other potential causes."
In reaching its conclusion that the district court's grant of summary judgment was in error, the Ninth Circuit also considered what type of medical advice the plaintiffs were given with respect to the cause of their injuries. The court explained that plaintiffs' doctors never suggested to them that their injuries might have been caused by the Rocketdyne facility. Furthermore, the court considered the extent of publicity regarding other possible causes of plaintiff's injuries. The court reviewed articles submitted by plaintiffs detailing various warnings regarding potential causes of cancer. Based on evidence submitted by the plaintiffs and the uncertainty surrounding the causes of cancer, the Ninth Circuit found that the district court erred in concluding that plaintiffs were on inquiry notice that the Rocketdyne facility caused their injuries.
In addition, the Ninth Circuit found that the district court's ruling was illogical because under the district court's reasoning a plaintiff would have to file lawsuits "against all suspected sources of chronic illness to prevent the running of the statute of limitations." Furthermore, the court noted that the amount of publicity surrounding the Rocketdyne facility was not dispositive of the issue as to whether plaintiffs had inquiry notice of the Rocketdyne facility as to the cause of their injuries. Therefore, the Ninth Circuit found that the district court inappropriately made factual findings regarding the Rocketdyne publicity that should have been left to a jury.
Concerning part two of the test, "whether a reasonable inquiry would have put [the] [p]laintiffs on notice of their claim[,]" the court considered that there was a wealth of complex and rapidly changing information surrounding the possible causes of cancer. Therefore, the Ninth Circuit explained that the plaintiffs were not in a position to discover what caused their cancer and that the plaintiffs had to rely on corporate or government research on the subject. Thus, the Ninth Circuit found that it was a question of fact to be decided by a jury whether plaintiffs could have discovered that the defendant's Rocketdyne facility and operations caused their injury prior to the release of the UCLA study despite being on inquiry notice. Thus, the Ninth Circuit reversed the district court's grant of summary judgment to the defendants with respect to the plaintiffs that joined the action after the release of the UCLA study.
With respect to the plaintiffs that joined the action before the release of the UCLA study, the Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court's grant of defendants' summary judgment motion. The court explained that the plaintiffs failed to provide evidence regarding how and when they had notice of their claims and therefore summary judgment was appropriate.
One of the judges of the Ninth Circuit panel concurred in part and dissented in part, concluding that there were no differences in the state standard and the federal standard with respect to application of the discovery rule. In addition, the dissent found that the available publicity regarding the Rocketdyne facility imputed knowledge to the plaintiffs. Therefore, the dissent would have affirmed the district court's grant of defendants' summary judgment motions against all plaintiffs.
In the case of any action brought under State law for personal injury . . . caused or contributed to by exposure to any hazardous substance, or pollutant or contaminant . . . if the applicable limitations period for such action . . . provides a commencement date which is earlier than the federally required commencement date, such period shall commence at the federally required commencement date in lieu of the date specified in such state statute.
Id. § 9638(a)(1).
 "Plaintiffs introduced evidence of extensive publicity between 1989 and 1996 warning that a variety of products--from tobacco, pesticides and diesel fuel to peanut butter, nail polish, cellular telephones and radar guns--were potential causes of cancer." Id.