Long-Term Exposure to Asbestos and Evidence of Causal Relationship

In Celotex Corp. v. Copeland, 471 So. 2d 533 (Fla. 1985), the plaintiff filed a product liability cause of action against sixteen different manufacturers and distributors of asbestos products, alleging that his injury was due to exposure to asbestos products over a thirty- three-year period (commencing in 1942) when he worked as a boilermaker. The plaintiff claimed that the long-term exposure to asbestos products caused his health to deteriorate slowly over a number of years until he developed asbestosis. In 1958 or 1959, the plaintiff first became aware of the possible health hazards from the exposure to asbestos dust, "when another crew at his work site walked off the job because of alleged health hazards from the excessive dust." Copeland v. Armstrong Cork Co., 447 So. 2d at 925. However, the plaintiff did not suffer any physical problems until the late 1960's, when he started to feel "physical discomfort," specifically, difficulty in breathing and watery eyes when he was working around asbestos dust. In 1972, after the plaintiff experienced the more serious symptoms of shortness of breath and coughing up blood, the plaintiff's conditions were diagnosed as pneumonia and emphysema by two different doctors. It was not until 1978 that the plaintiff was "conclusively" diagnosed as having asbestosis. On April 17, 1979, the plaintiff filed a lawsuit, and in his complaint the plaintiff alleged that during his occupational life [he] was exposed to and injured by asbestos products manufactured, sold and distributed by the various defendants herein, that the defendants failed to warn the plaintiff that exposure to asbestos products creates a grave health risk, that defendants' failure to so warn was a proximate cause of [the] plaintiff's injuries and that the defendants are therefore liable under theories of strict liability in tort, negligence and breach of warranty. Id. In response, the defendants argued that the action was barred by the statute of limitations. Specifically, the defendants alleged that the plaintiff knew or should have known that the accumulated effects of the asbestos dust were manifesting themselves in such a way as to give some evidence of a causal relationship to the asbestos dust in 1972, when the plaintiff experienced the serious symptoms of shortness of breath and coughing up blood. The trial court agreed and entered a final summary judgment on the ground that the action was time-barred. On appeal, the Third District Court of Appeal reversed. The district court reasoned that in a products liability action involving a "creeping disease," the action accrues "'only when the accumulated effects of the deleterious substance manifest themselves [to the claimant],' in a way which supplies some evidence of causal relationship to the manufactured product." Id. at 926. The district court added that "these matters are generally treated as fact questions for a jury to resolve, and therefore inappropriate for resolution on a summary judgment or directed verdict." Id.