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Adams v. 3M Co.

United States District Court, Sixth Circuit

July 5, 2013

DONNIE ADAMS, Plaintiff,
3M COMPANY, et al., Defendants.


AMUL R. THAPAR, District Judge.

Donnie Adams was diagnosed with two serious coal-related lung diseases in 1981. He filed a workers' compensation claim against his employer that same year, was deemed permanently disabled, and was awarded workers' compensation for life. Over the next twenty-nine years, Adams took no action against the manufacturers who made the respirators he wore in the mines to prevent him from inhaling coal dust. Then, in 2011, his sister advised him that he should consult an attorney about his shortness of breath. Adams did, and this lawsuit followed shortly afterward. Adams claims that the defendants, 3M Company and Mine Safety Appliances, made defective masks and respirators that Adams wore while working in the mines and that the defects caused his lung diseases. The question before the Court is whether Adams's suit is timely. Adams claims that an exception to Kentucky's one-year statute of limitation known as the "discovery rule" applies to his suit. But the discovery rule does not apply because Adams was on notice that he might have a claim against the defendants and failed to investigate that claim. Adams therefore cannot take advantage of the discovery rule, and his suit must be dismissed as untimely.


Plaintiff Donnie Adams worked for a number of coal companies from 1967 until 1981. R. 1 at 3 ¶ 13. Because of a back injury, he left this line of work in 1979. R. 27-2 at 3-6 (Tr. 35-38). While working in the mines, Adams wore respirators made by 3M and Mine Safety. R. 1 at 4 ¶¶ 15-16.

In 1981, Adams learned that he had two serious coal-related lung diseases.[1] Dr. Lowell Martin diagnosed him as having silicosis in August of 1981. R. 27-2 at 32 (Tr. 302). Dr. Robert Penman diagnosed him with coal workers' pneumoconiosis ("black lung")[2] in early October of 1981. R. 27-5 at 1. Later that month, Adams applied to the Kentucky workers' compensation board, claiming that coal workers' pneumoconiosis had rendered him totally and permanently disabled. R. 27-3 at 2. During the board's adjudication of his claim, Adams was examined by three other doctors who all provided deposition testimony confirming that Adams had developed black lung. See R. 27-5. In 1983, the board declared him totally and permanently disabled due to pneumoconiosis and awarded him workers' compensation benefits. See R. 27-6. Adams also applied for federal benefits under the Black Lung Benefits Act, but his claim was denied. See R. 27-7; R. 27-8.

That seemed to be the end of the matter. Adams moved to Louisa, Kentucky, and lived off of his monthly social security disability benefits and workers' compensation award. See R. 28-7 at 5, 10-11 (Tr. 10, 33-34). But in July 2011, his sister Linda advised him to talk to an attorney about his shortness of breath. Id. at 24-25 (Tr. 87-91). Adams approached Zane Cagle, who now represents him in this case. Id.

Adams filed this suit on June 25, 2012, more than thirty years after his first black lung diagnosis. See R. 1. His suit claims that he wore defective masks and respirators manufactured by the defendants, 3M and Mine Safety, and alleges the products' defects caused his lung diseases. Id. at 4-5 ¶¶ 15-18, 21. He seeks damages from both defendants, under several theories of liability, to compensate him for the various losses he has suffered because of his injuries. See id. at 5-19.

Because there was obviously a statute of limitations issue in this case, the parties agreed to have a limited period of discovery to focus on just that issue. See R. 13 at 1 (citing R. 11). That limited discovery period is over, and both defendants have filed motions for summary judgment. R. 27; R. 28.


I. Standard of Review

Summary judgment is appropriate if there are no genuine issues of material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c); see Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23 (1986). Since 3M and Mine Safety brought the motions, the Court must view the evidence in the light most favorable to Adams, drawing all justifiable inferences in his favor. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255 (1986). That presumption does not mean, however, that Adams has no burden. To survive summary judgment, he must identify sufficient evidence in the record for a reasonable jury to return a verdict for him on his claims at trial. Id. The Court assesses the legal sufficiency of the evidence, not its credibility or weight. Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Prods., Inc., 530 U.S. 133, 150-51 (2000) (collecting cases applying Rule 56(c) and Rule 50).

II. The Timeliness of Adams's Complaint

The defendants' motions turn on one issue: Does Kentucky's discovery rule toll the statute of limitations period for Adams's complaint? It does not. First, by the end of 1981 Adams had enough facts in front of him to put him on notice that he had been injured and that the defendants might have caused that injury. Second, Adams failed to exercise reasonable ...

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