1991 DES Case: Enright v. Eli Lilly & Co.

AbstractS

The question in this case is whether the liability of manufacturers of the drug diethylstilbestrol (DES) should extend to a so-called “third generation” plaintiff, the granddaughter of a woman who ingested the drug. According to the allegations of the complaint, the infant plaintiff’s injuries were caused by her premature birth, which in turn resulted from damage to her mother’s reproductive system caused by the mother’s in utero exposure to DES.” …

ENRIGHT v. ELI LILLY & CO., Leagle, 1990219155AD2d64_1211, March 22, 1990.

… ‘The Legislature and this Court have both expressed concern for the victims of this tragedy by removing legal barriers to their tort recovery — barriers which may have had their place in other contexts, but which in DES litigation worked a peculiar injustice because of the ways in which DES was developed, marketed and sold and because of the insidious nature of its harm.

For example, prior to 1986, the long-standing rule in this State was that a cause of action for personal injuries caused by a toxic substance accrued and the limitations period began to run upon exposure to the substance (see Fleishman v Lilly & Co.). The Legislature, recognizing that under this rule claims for injuries caused by exposure to DES and other toxic substances were often time barred before the harmful effects of the exposure could be discovered, changed the law to provide that the limitations period in exposure cases begins to run upon discovery of the injury At the same time, the Legislature revived for one year previously time-barred causes of action based on exposure to DES and four other toxic substances.

More recently, this Court responded to the fact that — for a variety of reasons unique to the DES litigation context — a DES plaintiff generally finds it impossible to identify the manufacturer of the drug that caused her injuries. We held that liability could be imposed upon DES manufacturers in accordance with their share of the national DES market, notwithstanding the plaintiff’s inability to identify the manufacturer particularly at fault for her injuries (see Hymowitz v Lilly & Co.).

In the present case, we are asked to do something significantly different. We are asked, not to remove some barrier to recovery that presents unique problems in DES cases, but to recognize a cause of action not available in other contexts simply (or at least largely) because this is a DES case.”…

” … the mother’s injuries in this case were caused by exposure to DES instead of by medical malpractice. A different rule is justified, therefore, only if that distinction alters the policy balance we struck in Albala.

The primary thrust of plaintiffs’ argument and the Appellate Division’s decision is that DES itself alters that balance. From the Legislature’s actions in modifying the applicable Statute of Limitations and reviving time-barred DES cases and from our adoption of a market-share liability theory in Hymowitz, plaintiffs perceive a public policy favoring a remedy for DES-caused injuries sufficient to overcome the countervailing policy considerations we identified in Albala. The implication, of course, is that the public interest in providing a remedy for those injured by DES is stronger than the public interest in providing a remedy for those injured by other means — medical malpractice, for example. We do not believe that such a preference has been established.

To be sure, recent developments demonstrate legislative and judicial solicitude for the victims of DES, but they do not establish DES plaintiffs as a favored class for whose benefit all traditional limitations on tort liability must give way. To the extent that special rules have been fashioned, they are a response to unique procedural barriers and problems of proof peculiar to DES litigation.

For example, the Legislature’s enactment of a “discovery” Statute of Limitations was directed at opening up traditional avenues of recovery by removing a procedural barrier that was unreasonable given the nature of DES injuries. Nothing in the legislation suggests that the Legislature intended to expand the basis for liability. Indeed, the language of the statute suggests the opposite conclusion. The discovery rule applies in cases of injury caused by “the latent effects of exposure to any substance * * * upon or within the body”. Exposure is defined as “direct or indirect exposure by absorption, contact, ingestion, inhalation or injection”. Implicit in this language is the notion that “some contact with the substance is essential to a cause of action”, an element lacking here. …

… “I am convinced that existing legal doctrine and established policy point unequivocally to a decision upholding Karen Enright’s cause of action. Let us assume for the sake of argument, however, that this is not so and that the appeal presents a “hard case” where there are no clearly discernible legal or policy guidelines. On this assumption, is there any underlying principled reason in fairness, justice or moral doctrine why Karen Enright’s claim should be turned away?

There are two fundamental principles of justice, however, which dictate that Karen Enright should be permitted to prove her case.

First, Karen Enright is a victim of what — if the allegations of her complaint are proven — amounts to a wrong of enormous proportions which inflicted grievous injuries on her and countless other innocent persons. Unless her case is barred on some legal or policy ground, she should be justly compensated for her injuries to the extent that our judicial system can accomplish this.

Second, she is damaged no less than other victims of DES who make up the class. If they are permitted to recover, so should she be. To say that Karen Enright cannot recover is to abrogate one of the most basic of all principles — that “like cases should be treated alike.”…

… Read the full paper ENRIGHT v. ELI LILLY & CO., on Leagle.

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