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In Boettcher v. Conoco-Phillips Co., No. No. 17-6115 (W.D. Okla., 2018), the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit answers that question.

Plaintiffs Thomas Boettcher and Pamelia Vennerberg (“Boettchers”) allege Boettcher’s cancer was caused by exposure to emissions from Defendant’s refinery in Ponca City, Oklahoma. The District Court granted the motion to dismiss filed by Defendants ConocoPhillips Company and Phillips 66 Company (collectively “ConocoPhillips”). The district court concluded the Boettchers’ claims were untimely because they failed to plead sufficient facts to support application of the discovery rule.

The Boettchers’ amended complaint alleges that Mr. Boettcher lived near the ConocoPhillips refinery from 1944 until 1962, and that Mr. Boettcher was exposed to benzene and benzene-containing chemicals released from the refinery and those emissions caused him to develop multiple myeloma. Mr. Boettcher’s cancer diagnosis was made in 2011, but the Boettchers’ claims were not brought until 2016. ConocoPhillips moved to dismiss the Boettchers’ amended complaint, asserting their claims were time barred as a matter of law. Specifically, it argued the complaint failed to establish a factual basis for tolling the two-year limitations period and, thus, the discovery rule was inapplicable. Oklahoma state law establishes a two-year statute of limitations for negligence and strict liability claims. The discovery rule allows limitation periods in tort cases to be tolled until the injured party knows or, in the exercise of reasonable diligence, should have known of the injury.

The Boettchers claim they did not know or discover the potential or actual causal relationship between Mr. Boettcher’s exposures to benzene and multiple myeloma until August 2015. The Boettchers state theirs is a factual allegation sufficient to toll the statute of limitations and must be accepted as true. The District Court agreed with ConocoPhillips that the statement in the Boettchers’ amended complaint did not contain facts sufficient to demonstrate a basis for tolling the applicable statute of limitations. Under Oklahoma law, the discovery rule tolls the limitations period until the plaintiff knows of, or in the exercise of reasonable diligence should have known of, the injury. The amended complaint alleged the Boettchers were aware of Mr. Boettcher’s injury in 2011 but did not actually discover its alleged cause until 2015. The District Court concluded these facts, even accepted as true, were insufficient because the complaint contained no facts addressing why they were unable to discover the cause of Mr. Boettcher’s cancer prior to 2015.

The Court of Appeals agrees with the district court that the Boettchers’ amended complaint contains only a conclusory statement as to the application of the discovery rule and lacks any factual allegations relevant to the Boettchers’ exercise of reasonable diligence. Thus, based on the facts alleged, it cannot be concluded that the discovery rule tolls the two-year limitations period. The Court of Appeals affirms the grant of ConocoPhillips’s motion to dismiss.

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