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May 22, 2013

New York Court of Appeals Considers Viability of Medical Monitoring Claims

In Caronia v. Philip Morris USA, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals considered the unsettled issue of whether cigarette smokers, who were not diagnosed or undergoing treatment for a smoking-related disease, may bring an equitable claim for "medical monitoring" under New York law against Philip Morris, the manufacturer of the cigarettes. The Court kept the possibility of such a claim alive by certifying the question to the New York State Court of Appeals, the state's highest court.

The plaintiffs in Caronia are residents of New York who brought a putative class action against Philip Morris for negligence, strict liability, and breach of implied warranty, based upon the design, manufacture and sale of its cigarettes. The plaintiffs alleged that although Philip Morris knew at all relevant times that it was feasible to lower the carcinogenic content of its cigarettes, it purposely designed all of its Marlboro cigarettes to deliver an excessive amount of carcinogens when smoked.

Significantly, plaintiffs also asserted an equitable claim to compel Philip Morris to fund medical monitoring of the long-time plaintiff smokers who have not been diagnosed with lung cancer, but were subject to an increased risk due to smoking Marlboro brand cigarettes. Plaintiffs alleged that a recently established medical surveillance technique known as Low Dose CT Scanning of the chest (LDCT) is a safe, efficacious and inexpensive technique, which, for the first time, provides a means to identify and diagnose lung cancers at an early stage, when they are still curable.

The United States District Court, Eastern District of New York, had previously granted summary judgment dismissing the negligence, strict liability, and some of the breach of implied warranty claims as time-barred and the breach of warranty of merchantability claim due to insufficient proof. The District Court also dismissed the medical monitoring claim, holding that the plaintiffs failed to adequately allege that Philip Morris' conduct was the proximate cause of an increased risk of cancer.

The Second Circuit affirmed the dismissal of the negligence and strict liability claims as beyond the statute of limitations. It held that these causes of action accrued when the initial exposure occurred, causing the plaintiffs to have an increased risk of lung cancer, as opposed to the accrual date renewing with each new inhalation. The Second Circuit further affirmed the dismissal of the implied warranty of merchantability claim, holding that defendant had established as a matter of law that the cigarettes were "minimally safe when used in the customary, usual, and reasonably foreseeable manner."

Importantly, however, the Second Circuit vacated the dismissal of the medical monitoring equitable claim. The Court, following an analysis of both federal and state laws, found that most courts have ruled that medical monitoring claims were available for claims asserting tortious exposure to carcinogenic substances, even if the plaintiffs have not been diagnosed. Courts have generally concluded that the New York Court of Appeals would recognize the claim. However, the issue had never been addressed by the New York Court of Appeals and the conclusions held in New York's intermediate appellate courts, the federal district courts in New York, and the highest courts of other states, are in conflict. The Second Circuit determined that the best course would be to have the New York Court of Appeals decide whether New York recognizes an independent claim for medical monitoring. Accordingly, the Second Circuit certified the question of whether New York law recognizes a claim for medical monitoring and, if so, what the elements are, what the statute of limitations is, and when such a claim accrues. Answers to these questions will be addressed by the Court of Appeals, but in the meantime, the reader should be aware of the potential viability of a medical monitoring claim in tortious exposure cases.

If you require further information regarding the information presented in this Legal Alert and its impact on your organization, please contact Matthew J. Larkin, Chair of the Torts & Products Liability Defense Practice Area at (315) 425-2805 or mlarkin@hblaw.com.

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