Overturning a long-standing precedent it had reaffirmed only last year, the Alabama Supreme Court has allowed a wrongful death lawsuit that a judge had barred on grounds that the plaintiff waited too long to file.
The 5-4 decision handed down Friday will allow Alabamians exposed to toxic chemicals after Jan. 25, 2006, to sue the manufacturers if they become ill in the future, but it will not apply to thousands of people who were last exposed before then.
"That doesn't mean we're going to stop," said Birmingham lawyer Robert Palmer, who represents the plaintiff, a widow of a Tuscaloosa man who died from a rare form of leukemia. "Denial of justice to anyone is not justice. ... It's a victory, but it's not a complete victory."
Since 1979, the high court had enforced what amounted to a Catch-22. In most cases, people who claim to have been sickened by a toxic substance had to file a lawsuit within two years of their last exposure. But they also could not sue until they were sick.
Since symptoms caused by toxic chemicals often do not show up until years after the fact, the rulings effectively barred plaintiffs from seeking damages in court.
Alabama had been the only state to interpret its statute of limitations rules in that way.
Activists urging restrictions on lawsuits have argued that the state Legislature should address the issue. They also note that the statute of limitations is important because of the difficulty companies face trying to defend against alleged conduct that occurred many years ago.
"More people are potentially going to have claims now," said Mobile lawyer Matt McDonald, the general counsel of the Alabama Civil Justice Reform Committee. "Because it's not retroactive, I don't think it's going to open the floodgates, either."
In the case decided Friday, Brenda Sue Sanford Griffin sued in 2006 on behalf of her dead husband, claiming his death was the result of exposure to benzene and other toxic substances he came in contact with on the job at a tire manufacturing plant.
David Wayne Griffin worked at the Tuscaloosa plant from 1973 to 1993. He was diagnosed with a rare disease called acute myelogenous leukemia in 2003, 10 years after his last exposure.