In Bryant v. United States, Case No. 12-15424 (decided October 14, 2014), the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit addressed when an amendment to a statute of repose can apply in a pending case. Although the case addressed North Carolina law, the principles it discussed have general application.
The Bryant case arose out of a multi-district litigation in which multiple parties alleged that they experienced health problems after being exposed to toxic substances in the drinking water while living on a military base in North Carolina. North Carolina has a statute of repose that provides that a personal injury suit cannot be filed more than ten years from the last act or omission of the defendant giving rise to the cause of action. The United States contended that the plaintiffs’ claims were barred by that statute of repose. The case came before the Eleventh Circuit on an interlocutory appeal focused on the application of the statute of repose.
In its last term, the United States Supreme Court held that federal law did not preempt North Carolina’s statute of repose. CTS Corp. v. Waldburger, 134 S. Ct. 2175 (2014). After acknowledging the application of that holding in the case before it, the Eleventh Circuit further held that the North Carolina statute of repose did not have any exception for claims alleging that the plaintiff suffered a latent disease.
However, in June 2014, shortly after the CTS decision, the North Carolina legislature adopted a statute adding language to the statute of repose that clearly stated that it did not apply to a personal injury claim arising out of exposure to contaminated groundwater. The 2014 statute adopting that language stated that it applied to any action “filed, arising, or pending” on or after June 20, 2014. Opinion, p. 7. Because the Bryant case was a pending case in June 2014, the Eleventh Circuit recognized that the plain language of that amended statute would have prevented application of the statute of repose to the plaintiffs’ claims.
However, the Government contended that the 2014 amendment could not apply retroactively to revive a barred claim. The Eleventh Circuit recognized that a statutory amendment that altered the rights of the parties could not have retroactive effect while an amendment that merely clarified an ambiguous law could have retroactive effect. After considering all the circumstances, the Eleventh Circuit ruled that the 2014 amendment to the statute of repose was a change in the law, not merely a clarification. Therefore, the Court held that the amendment to the statute of repose could not apply to the Bryant case. Opinion, pp. 13-15.
Many cases recognize the important distinction between a statute that changes the law and one that merely clarifies ambiguity in the law. As the Bryant case recognizes, that distinction can have enormous consequences.
The Opinion is available at http://media.ca11.uscourts.gov/opinions/pub/files/201215424.pdf
For more information on Bryant v. United States, contact your Appellate Counsel at Smith, Gambrell & Russell.