In Louisiana, a tort suit must be filed within a certain period of time after the incident occurs. This is called the “prescriptive period,” and serves several purposes. It puts the defendant on notice within a reasonable period of time that a plaintiff has a possible claim against him and thereby allows him to preserve evidence that may be required for trial. It also supports the state’s efforts to resolve legal disputes in a timely manner. The prescriptive period for a specific tort is set by statute. For product liability cases, the Louisiana Products Liability Act “establishes the exclusive theories of liability for manufacturers for damage caused by their products” and creates a one-year prescriptive period for claims that “commences to run from the day injury or damage is sustained.” See LA. CIV. CODE Art. 3492.
Filing a lawsuit even one day past the expiration of the prescriptive period can prove fatal to a plaintiff’s effort. For example, Carter v. Matrixx Initiatives, Inc., No. 09-31134 (5th Cir. 2010) involved a plaintiff who filed her lawsuit just six days too late and was barred from recovering. On February 23, 2007, Ruth Carter of Livingston Parish used Zicam No Drip Liquid Nasal Gel Cold Remedy and immediately experienced excruciating burning pain in her nose. By the next day, she lost her sense of smell and sense of taste. The pain was so severe that Carter was unable to work and told her employer that she believed the Zicam had caused the burn when she called in sick. Carter sought medical treatment from her primary care physician who did not confirm the cause of her injury but referred her to a radiography center for further examination. During the imaging appointment on May 7, 2007, Carter told the technician about her suspicions about the Zicam. The technician responded that she had received an e-mail communication warning “to be on the lookout for [the same kind of] problem with Zicam.” Carter filed suit against Matrixx Initiatives, Inc, the maker of Zicam, on February 29, 2008 in Louisiana state court. The case was removed to federal court where the Louisiana Products Liability Act was to be applied by the court. Matrixx then filed a motion for summary judgment seeking a dismissal, arguing that because Carter’s suit was filed six days after the expiration of Louisiana’s one-year prescriptive period for product liability suits, Carter’s action should be barred. The district court granted Matrixx’s motion on this ground, and Carter appealed.
In her appeal, Carter argued that the doctrine of contra non valentem should apply. Under this doctrine, the running of the prescriptive period is suspended “until the facts necessary to state a cause of action are known or reasonably knowable to the plaintiff.” The idea is that the plaintiff is not penalized for failing to act until she has “actual or constructive notice of the [tort], the resulting injury, and the causal connection between the two or that the plaintiff’s lack of such knowledge was willful, negligent or unreasonable.” See Sharkey v. Sterling Drug, Inc., 600 So. 2d 7013 (La. App. 1st Cir. 1992). In effect, Carter’s position was that not until her conversation with the radiography technician on May 7, 2007 did she become aware that the Zicam caused her injury and, accordingly, the prescriptive period should not have begun running until that date. The Fifth Circuit rejected this argument. The court found that it was “apparent that Carter first sustained the injury that allegedly resulted from her use of Zicam on February 23, 2007 and that she had actual knowledge of pain and sensory loss on that same day.” The court noted that “from the very outset, Carter suspected and attributed her injury to Zicam, and she never wavered in that belief.” In the court’s view, Carter “indisputably” had both the belief that Zicam caused her injury and a reasonable basis for seeking to hold its manufacturer responsible “on February 24 at the latest.” Therefore, the prescriptive period “began running on February 23 (February 24 at the latest),” and so Carter’s filing of her lawsuit “was at least five days late.” The court affirmed the lower court’s dismissal of Carter’s claims.
The Carter case is a stark example of how strictly courts enforce the prescriptive periods established by the legislature. If you have been injured by a defective or dangerous product, it is critical to seek legal help immediately so you do not lose your opportunity to file a suit and obtain the recovery you deserve. An experienced trial lawyer will determine the prescriptive period that applies to your case and help you file an action before the window closes permanently.
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