Summary Judgment Obtained for Volkswagen in St. Louis
Tracy Cowan of the St. Louis office of Hawkins Parnell Thackston & Young LLP (HPTY), with assistance from Karen Volkman, Melissa Vaughn, Katie Doll, and David Hartung, obtained summary judgment on behalf of Volkswagen Group of America, Inc. (“Volkswagen”), in the City of St. Louis, Missouri, in a case alleging wrongful death as a result of asbestos exposure through Decedent’s alleged work as a brake mechanic at Volkswagen dealerships in Missouri and California.
Decedent was diagnosed with mesothelioma on December 13, 2013, died on January 21, 2014, and allegedly received a “final diagnosis” of mesothelioma after his death, on March 26, 2014. Decedent’s daughter first filed suit for wrongful death against several defendants, including Volkswagen, in Madison County, Illinois, on April 29, 2015, but Plaintiffs dismissed Volkswagen due to lack of personal jurisdiction. Not to be deterred, Plaintiff then filed a second lawsuit in the City of St. Louis on May 16, 2016, against Volkswagen and four other defendants. Volkswagen again filed a motion to dismiss challenging jurisdiction and, alternatively, venue; and a motion for summary judgment asserting that Plaintiff’s claim was time-barred under Missouri’s “borrowing statute.” The borrowing statute requires the Court to apply the law, in this case the statute of limitations on asbestos-related wrongful death claims, of the forum where the cause of action originated. If a cause of action would be barred by the law of the originating state, the borrowing statute is a complete defense to any action brought in Missouri. The legislative intent behind this statute was to avoid forum shopping and prevent sidestepping by plaintiffs of the laws of the state wherein the claim arose, a frequent practice in asbestos litigation in the City of St. Louis and Madison County.
Discovery conducted prior to summary judgment revealed that contrary to the allegations in the Petition, Decedent actually lived and worked in the State of California for the entire time period from 1977 to 2007 during which Plaintiff alleged Decedent was exposed to asbestos-containing products. Therefore, California was indisputably the state in which the cause of action originated and it’s statute of limitations applied.
California’s statute of limitations for wrongful death based on asbestos exposure is the later of: (1) one year from the death of plaintiff, or (2) one year from the date the plaintiff knew or should have known the death was caused or contributed to by such exposure. Here, Plaintiff arguably knew on the date of Decedent’s death in 2014, but certainly by the time of filing the Madison County lawsuit in 2015, at the latest. In either event, under California law, the one-year deadline had expired prior to filing in the City of St. Louis. Under Missouri’s statute of limitations for this same cause of action, Plaintiff would have had five years to file suit. Thus, in addition to the threshold issues of jurisdiction and venue, the analysis of potential application of forum law can have a significant impact on the survival of the case at a very early stage in the litigation.
Plaintiff erroneously argued that the borrowing statute did not apply based on misinterpretation of California law and that Missouri’s five-year statute of limitations was applicable. After extensive oral argument, the City of St. Louis Circuit Court took the issue under advisement and ultimately dismissed Volkswagen with prejudice, properly applying California’s one-year statute of limitations as the Missouri borrowing statute intended.