The widow of a leukemia victim failed to persuade the Supreme Court Monday to consider allowing her to sue oil companies over her husband’s exposure to a toxic chemical, a case her lawyer calls a legal “Catch 22” in Alabama.
The justices without comment declined to take up the case of Martha Jane Cline, who is trying to hold the companies accountable for her late husband’s health problems. The U.S. Supreme Court rejected the case June 4.
Jack Cline had filed a claim against Ashland Inc., Chevron Phillips Chemical and Exxon Mobil, the companies which made the benzene, claiming that the leukemia resulted from exposure to benzene at his factory job. But the Alabama Supreme Court ruled that he waited too long to sue, even though Cline didn’t know he was sick until after the deadline to sue had passed. Mr. Cline died twelve days after the Alabama Supreme Court ruling.
Alabama courts have held there is a two-year window period to file a lawsuit from the last exposure to toxic chemicals, but they also have held there must be an injury before a lawsuit is filed. There was never a time when Cline, a longtime chemist, could have filed suit because the two-year deadline passed in 1989 and he wasn’t diagnosed with the disease until 1999. See our blog Jack v. the Giant.
Robert Palmer, a lawyer in Birmingham, said the decision means people injured by exposure to hazardous chemicals in Alabama are virtually barred from filing suit since many illnesses take years to develop. He argued for Martha Cline, widow of Jack Cline, before the United States Supreme Court, attempting to persuade the high court that it should take up the case because it has long held that people must be given a reasonable amount of time to sue. The crux of the argument was that the Alabama high court ruling warrants review because it squarely conflicts with more than a century of U.S. Supreme Court precedents requiring civil litigants to be afforded a reasonable amount of time in which to file a lawsuit.
Cline’s attorney, Robert Palmer, who has filed many suits in other states over exposure to toxic chemicals, said all other states have a time limit that begins when a person learns of an illness.
Alabama ranks 10th in the nation in the incidence of lung cancers and 16th in incidence of all cancers, the petition said. With many of these cancers attributable to exposure to toxic substances, many victims will find themselves locked out of the Alabama courts because of the state’s last-exposure rule, Martha Cline said.