Issue by: Laurie E. Yoon
Lopez v. Sony Electronics, Inc.
California Supreme Court (July 5, 2018)

When a child is allegedly harmed by in utero exposure to hazardous chemicals, which statute of limitations applies? Toxic exposure claims (Code of Civ. Proc. §340.8(a)), or prenatal injuries (C.C.P. §340.4)?

Plaintiff Dominique Lopez brought suit when she was twelve years old. She had been born with multiple birth defects, including chromosomal deletion, cervical vertebrae fusion, facial asymmetry, dysplastic nails, diverticulum of the bladder, and a misshapen kidney. She alleged that she and her mother were exposed to toxic chemicals at a Sony manufacturing plant, resulting in her birth defects.

Sony Electronics moved for summary judgment, arguing that the action was time-barred under §340.4, the six-year statute of limitations for birth and prenatal injuries. In response, Lopez argued that her action fell under §340.8, which covers injuries caused by toxic exposure. The limitations period under §340.8 is only two years, but unlike §340.4, it permits tolling during minority and periods of mental incapacity.

The trial court granted summary judgment after applying §340.4. A divided panel of the Court of Appeal affirmed.

The Supreme Court opined that this case posed a pure question of statutory interpretation subject to independent review. The Court acknowledged that Lopez’s case appeared to fall within the ambit of both statutes of limitations. “It is [a]n action . . . for personal injuries sustained before or in the course of . . . birth” (§ 340.4) and a “civil action for injury or illness based upon exposure to a hazardous material or toxic substance” (§ 340.8, subd. (a)).” The Supreme Court had previously held that, “if conflicting statutes cannot be reconciled, later enactments supersede earlier ones, and more specific provisions take precedence over more general ones. Collection Bureau of San Jose v. Rumsey (2000) 24 Cal 4th 301.

The Supreme Court reversed the lower courts’ rulings, holding that the toxic exposure statute under §340.8 applied here because §340.8 postdated §340.4 by more than 60 years. Moreover, its language embraced “any” civil action and did not make an exception for prenatal injury claims falling under §340.4 regardless of when they accrued. Therefore, Lopez’s claims were not time-barred. 

C.C.P. §340.8 went into effect on January 1, 2004. Before that time, plaintiff’s claims would have been subject to §340.4, which did not permit tolling during minority. Even though the §340.4 six-year statute of limitations is longer than the §340.8 two-year statute of limitations, tolling creates a situation like this case, where the statute of limitations is tolled until the minor plaintiff reaches majority.

For a copy of the complete decision, see: Lopez v. Sony Electronics Inc

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