In Anthony v. Abbott Laboratories, 490 A.2d 43, 45 (R.I. 1985), the Court held that the statute of limitations in a product liability action against a drug company does not begin to run until the plaintiff discovers the manufacturer's wrongful conduct.
In Anthony, the Rhode Island Supreme Court answered a certified question from the United States District Court for the District of Rhode Island. The question as posed required the Court to answer whether, for purposes of the discovery rule, "the statute of limitations begins to run in a drug product-liability action when the plaintiff discovers the personal injuries and its cause or when plaintiff discovers or should have discovered knowledge of defendant manufacturer's wrongful conduct." 490 A.2d at 44.
Factually, the plaintiffs alleged injury as a result of exposure to a synthetic hormone while in utero (one of the plaintiffs was a mother who alleged injury as a result of the ingestion of the hormone while pregnant).
The plaintiffs all knew of their collective injuries more than three years before filing suit and that the injuries were possibly caused by exposure to the hormone; they did not, however, have knowledge of any potential wrongful conduct on the part of the defendants at any point in time more than three years prior to filing suit.
In likening a drug product-liability action to a medical malpractice action, the Court cited Wilkinson for the proposition that one should have an opportunity to be aware of an injury, as well as its cause, before the statute of limitations begins to run. Id. at 45.
"The same considerations that support the adoption of the discovery rule in medical-malpractice cases apply a fortiori to the drug product-liability field." Id. at 45.
The emerging trend at that time was that a plaintiff should have some knowledge of wrongdoing before the statute of limitations starts to run. Id. at 46.
The Court distinguished Wilkinson on the basis that, in Wilkinson, the cause of the injury and the wrongful conduct occurred at the same time. See id. The Rhode Island Supreme Court adopted the following rule: "In a drug product-liability action where the manifestation of an injury, the cause of that injury, and the person's knowledge of the wrongdoing by the manufacturer occur at different points on time, the running of the statute of limitations would begin when the person discovers, or with reasonable diligence should have discovered, the wrongful conduct of the manufacturer." Id.
A plaintiff does not need to be aware of all the legal elements of a cause of action before the statute of limitations begins to run. Id. However, the plaintiff "has to have 'some awareness . . . that her injuries were the result of some wrongdoing on the part of defendants.'" Id.