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Halbrook v. Mallinckrodt LLC

United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit

April 27, 2018

Russell Halbrook, Decedent, through his heir Edith Halbrook; Sandra Cattoor, Decedent, through her heir Dale Cattoor; Frances Bathe, Decedent, through her heir George Bathe; Mary Beatty, Decedent, through her heir Carol Sayre; Arthur Voss, Decedent, through his heir Linda Friedman; William Sayre, Decedent, through his heir Carol Sayre; Alfred Brueggeman, Decedent, through his heir Ashley Pedraza; Frank Kranz, Decedent, through his heir William Kranz; Frank Steinbruegge; James Connelly, Decedent, through his heir Carmen Maher; James Gray, Decedent, through his heir Mary Gray; Jule Ballard, Decedent, through his heir Carol Stallein; John Treiber, Decedent, through his heir Susan Douglas; Myron Harmon, Decedent, through his heir Cynthia Fondren; Lorraine Feissner, Decedent, through her heir Kevin Feissner; Jeanne Strupel, Decedent, through her heir Mary Strupel; Edward Erbe, Decedent, through his heir Joan Elhoffer; Pattie Teutrine, Decedent, through her heir Barbara Tocco; Helen Wiegert, Decedent, through her heir Brian Wiegert; Sharron Walkenhorst, Decedent, through her heir Beverly Manno; Bonnie Ellebracht, Decedent, through her heir Jill Davison; Anthony Tocco, Decedent, through his heir Barbara Tocco; John Carpenter, Decedent, through his heir Shirley Carpenter; Andrian King, Decedent, through his heir Pam Kruse; Andrew Sit, Decedent, through his heir Grace Sit; Elizabeth Erbe, Decedent, through her heir Joan Elhoffer; Michael Martin, Decedent, through his heir Carla Martin; Donald Randall, Decedent, through his heir Lena Wieland; Gary Borthick, Decedent, through his heir Roxanna Stockwell; Dorothy Kranz, Decedent, through her heir William Kranz; Brad Reynolds, Decedent, through his heir Gary Rosenberger; Morris Whitton, Decedent, through his heir Katherine Whitton; Joyce Johnson, Decedent, through her heir Deira Benton; Walter Zwilling, Decedent, through his heir Maureen Kolkmeyer; David Picciuolo, Decedent, through his heir Vicki Picciuolo; John Burch, Decedent, through his heir Josephine Burch; William E. Zahn, Decedent, through his heir William J. Zahn; Eddie Jones, Decedent, through his heir Susie Jones; Richard Brewington, Decedent, through his heir James Brewington; Leffie Fortenberry, Decedent, through his heir Sinola Fortenberry; Sandra Drey, Decedent, through her heir James Drey; Richard Christian, Decedent, through his heir Katherine Christian; Steven Skurat, Decedent, through his heir Tarae Skurat; Donna Hicks, Decedent, through her heir Dana Xolo Chigo; Ken Reynolds, Decedent, through his heir Gary Rosenberger; Carolyn Lavely, Decedent, through her heir Leon Lavely; James Troll, Decedent, through his heir Kathy Troll; Beverly Breeland-Salas, Decedent, through her heir Armand Salas; Robert Sieger, Decedent, through his heir Michael Sieger; Daniel Kling, Decedent, through his heir Nathan Kling; Bette Clair Bendyk, Decedent, through her heir Heather Bruns; Dorothy Weaver, Decedent, through her heir Cheryl Woodson; Larry Dean Birkla, Decedent, through his heir Janet Walters; Michael Banner, Decedent, through his heir Cathleen Richardson; Janet Banner, Decedent, through her heir Cathleen Richardson; Carol Bleeckert, Decedent, through her heir Ronald Bleeckert; Richard Brennecke, Decedent, through his heir Jean Peters; Thomas Connelly, Decedent, through his heir Suzanne Connelly; James Harmon, Decedent, through his heir Evelyn Morice; Linda Peimann, Decedent, through her heir Jennifer Peimann; Elizabeth Allhoff, Decedent, through her heir Jane Darrish; Gladys Arhontis, Decedent, through her heir Gwyn Beltran; James Siar, Decedent, through his heir Carol Siar; James Quillman, Decedent, through his heir Sandie Quillman-Hollowood; Jason Seithel, Decedent, through his heir Deana Seithel; Joseph Rodgers, Decedent, through his heir Michelle Mitchom; Lloyd Moore, Decedent, through his heir Kathy Moore; Larry Mathers, Decedent, through his heir Connie Mathers; Patricia Moore, Decedent, through her heir Eric Moore; Alfred Brennecke, Decedent, through his heir Debra Dzierwa; Madelyn Bayer, Decedent, through her heir Robert Bayer; Esau Trust, Decedent, through his heir Dorothy Trust; Elizabeth Pedersen; Lois Whitman, Decedent, through her heir Janet Larch Plaintiffs - Appellants
v.
Mallinckrodt LLC; Cotter Corp, Defendants - Appellees Minniette Burress, Decedent, by and through their heir Sharee Burress Plaintiff - Appellant
v.
Mallinckrodt LLC; Cotter Corp. Defendants - Appellees

          Submitted: January 9, 2018

          Appeals from United States District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri - St. Louis

          Before GRUENDER, MELLOY, and SHEPHERD, Circuit Judges.

          MELLOY, Circuit Judge.

         Plaintiff-Appellants assert wrongful-death claims under the public-liability provision of the Price-Anderson Nuclear Industries Indemnity Act (the "Price-Anderson Act" or the "Act") alleging exposure to nuclear radiation. See 42 U.S.C. §§ 2014, 2210. Defendants moved to dismiss claims brought on behalf of persons who passed away more than three years prior to the filing of suit. The district court[1]initially denied the motion, but on reconsideration, granted the motion, citing recent Missouri Supreme Court authority. The district court held the Act incorporates a Missouri statute of limitations that does not permit application of a discovery rule. The court also rejected Appellants' separate argument that the discovery rule and statute of limitations from the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act ("CERCLA"), 42 U.S.C. § 9658(a)(1) & (b)(4)(A), should apply. We affirm.

         I.

         Appellants allege their decedents were exposed to radioactive materials handled by Defendants at several sites in the St. Louis area during World War II and the Cold War. The decedents passed away more than three years prior to the filing of suit. Appellants allege they did not know and reasonably could not have known of the cause of injury or the identity of potentially responsible parties before the decedents' deaths. Given the purely legal nature of the issues on appeal, we need not address the factual background further. We do note that Appellants allege a general atmosphere of secrecy and concealment surrounding Defendants' handling of nuclear materials. For example, Appellants label Defendants' activities "top secret" and refer to Defendant Mallinckrodt's participation in the Manhattan Project.

         A few brief comments about the Act may aid in understanding the procedural history of this case. Congress passed the Act in part to provide a measure of financial protection for entities involved in the high-risk enterprise of developing the nation's nuclear programs for energy and defense. See O'Conner v. Commonwealth Edison Co., 13 F.3d 1090, 1095 (7th Cir. 1994) (describing the purpose of the Act as "protect[ing] the public and . . . encourag[ing] the development of the atomic energy industry" (alterations and omissions in original) (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 2012(i))). Many years later, Congress added a public-liability provision, creating a federal cause of action for injuries caused by nuclear exposure. See Price-Anderson Amendments Act of 1988, Pub. L. No. 100-408, § 11, 102 Stat. 1066 (adding 42 U.S.C. § 2014(hh)). This amendment incorporates substantive state-law standards for liability. See 42 U.S.C. § 2014(hh) ("A public liability action shall be deemed to be an action arising under section 2210 of this title, and the substantive rules for decision in such action shall be derived from the law of the State in which the nuclear incident involved occurs, unless such law is inconsistent with the provisions of such section.").

         The Act distinguishes between injuries arising from major, widespread releases of radiation and those arising from more limited releases. The "Nuclear Regulatory Commission or the Secretary of Energy, as appropriate" is authorized to declare a nuclear incident an "extraordinary nuclear occurrence" ("ENO"). See id.§ 2014(j). For claims arising from an ENO, the Act creates a statute of limitations that incorporates a discovery rule and expressly permits the waiver of defenses. 42 U.S.C. § 2210(n)(1). In contrast, the Act includes no limitation or waiver-of-defense provisions for "regular, " non-ENO claims. For regular claims under the Act, state laws governing limitation periods and claim accrual, like other aspects of state law, apply where states treat such laws as "substantive rules for decision." Id. § 2014(hh); see also Nieman v. NLO, Inc., 108 F.3d 1546, 1561 (6th Cir. 1997) ("[P]resumably Congress intended not to alter the state law statutes of limitations for nuclear incidents that are not ENOs . . . to the extent they are not inconsistent with § 2210 as required by § 2014[.]").

         Against this backdrop, Defendants moved for dismissal, citing Missouri's statute of limitations for wrongful-death claims. See Mo. Rev. Stat. § 537.100. The district court initially denied the motion, determining that section 537.100 was a substantive rule governing the present claims but also determining the possible application of a discovery rule precluded dismissal. Then, after the district court issued its order, the Missouri Supreme Court issued two partially inconsistent opinions interpreting section 537.100. See Boland v. Saint Luke's Health Sys., Inc., 471 S.W.3d 703 (Mo. banc 2015); Missouri ex rel. Beisly II v. Perigo, 469 S.W.3d 434 (Mo. banc 2015). The district court determined that, although both cases rejected the application of a discovery rule for determining claim accrual, the cases were at least partially inconsistent in that Boland also rejected a theory of equitable estoppel. Beisly, in contrast, held a wrongful-death defendant could be equitably estopped from asserting a statute-of-limitations defense if the defendant's fraudulent concealment caused the plaintiff's untimeliness. Beisly, 469 S.W.3d at 444 ("Equitable estoppel does not toll the running of the statute. Rather, it forecloses the wrongdoer, who concealed his or hear actions fraudulently, from asserting the defense.").

         Based on these conclusions, the district court granted Defendants' motion to dismiss, finding no discovery rule could be applied. The district court determined any difference between Boland and Beisly's treatment of equitable estoppel did not change the result because Appellants "never alleged that Defendants engaged in fraudulent concealment." Finally, Appellants argued federal law applied for determining claim accrual such that a discovery rule could be applied to contamination-based claims pursuant CERCLA. The district court rejected this argument, holding the CERCLA provisions asserted by Appellants applied only to claims arising under state law whereas claims under the Act were federal claims that merely incorporated state-law standards.

         II.

         We review de novo the district court's grant of a motion to dismiss. Mick v. Raines, 883 F.3d 1075, 1078 (8th Cir. 2018). When called upon to interpret state law, our role is to follow the law as decided by that state's highest court. Progressive N. Ins. v. McDonough, 608 F.3d 388, 390 (8th Cir. 2010). Absent clear direction from that court, we must conduct our analysis as a ...


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