Mine Safety Appliance Co. v. Holmes

Decision Date23 April 2015
Docket NumberNo. 2014–CA–00009–SCT.,2014–CA–00009–SCT.
PartiesMINE SAFETY APPLIANCE COMPANY v. Huey P. HOLMES.
CourtMississippi Supreme Court

Charles R. Wilbanks, Jr., Matthew R. Dowd, Joseph Anthony Sclafani, G. Austin Stewart, Jackson, attorneys for appellant.

David Neil McCarty, R. Allen Smith, Jr., Timothy W. Porter, Patrick C. Malouf, Ridgeland, John T. Givens, Jackson, attorneys for appellee.

EN BANC.

Opinion

WALLER, Chief Justice, for the Court:

¶ 1. This is a direct appeal from a judgment awarding Huey P. Holmes, plaintiff/appellee, $875,000 for silicosis-related injuries allegedly caused by a defective respirator sold by the defendant/appellant, Mine Safety Appliances (MSA). We agree with the trial court's ruling that the complaint was filed within the statute of limitations, and that Holmes was exposed to a harmful level of silica during the relevant time period. But we further find the trial judge erred in denying MSA's motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict (JNOV) regarding Holmes's warnings claim. We also find that MSA is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law regarding Holmes's design-defect claim because misuse of the respirator materially changed the product's condition after it left MSA's control. We therefore reverse and render on these issues.

FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

¶ 2. In 1958, Huey P. Holmes went to work for T.P. Groome breaking up concrete culverts with a jackhammer. Holmes worked for Groome on and off until 1964.1 During the six years Holmes worked for Groome, he was exposed to dusty work conditions. Groome provided Holmes a respirator that Holmes identified as a Dustfoe 66 manufactured by MSA. Holmes testified that, although he wore the mask, he often ingested so much dust while jackhammering that his mouth would fill with dirt and his spit would become black.2

¶ 3. Thirty-eight years later, on December 16, 2002, Holmes was diagnosed with silicosis

. Ten days later, on December 26, Holmes filed a products-liability suit against MSA, among others, claiming its product failed to protect him from overexposure to respirable silica. Subsequently, on April 7, 2006, Holmes was dismissed from the suit without prejudice in light of the then-recent changes to Mississippi joinder rules. Holmes refiled his suit against MSA on May 16, 2007. In its answer, MSA asserted that Holmes filed his second suit after the statute of limitations had run.

¶ 4. Later, on December 13, 2007, the parties agreed to a Master Set of Discovery.3 The defendants then propounded discovery requests to Holmes on January 16, 2008, including requests that Holmes list the dates and resolutions of all prior suits he had filed and to produce all documents related to any prior suit involving the same factual background. After Holmes failed to meet the sixty-day deadline to respond to the master discovery requests, MSA joined a codefendant's motion to compel on June 6, 2008. The trial court took no action on the motion, and more than a year later on June 24, 2009, MSA filed another motion to compel.

¶ 5. Holmes first answered the Master Set of Discovery on August 11, 2009, but the response was unsigned and unverified. It was not until January 15, 2010—670 days after the response was due—that Holmes submitted a signed and verified response.

¶ 6. On August 9, 2010, MSA filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing Holmes's second claim was filed after the three-year statute of limitations had run, and that the one-year saving period found in Mississippi Code Section 15–1–69 also had run. Holmes, noting that three years had passed since MSA first raised the limitations issue, argued that MSA had waived the defense.

¶ 7. The trial court denied MSA's motion for summary judgment, and the case proceeded to trial.4 The jury returned a judgment in favor of Holmes in the amount of $875,000, finding MSA ninety percent liable and T.P. Groome ten percent liable.5 MSA appeals, raising six issues, which we rephrase as:

I. Statute of Limitations
A. Whether Holmes's claims are time-barred because he failed to commence this action within one year of dismissal of his prior-filed suit.
II. Sufficiency of the Evidence
A. Whether Holmes offered any evidence at trial that he was exposed to a harmful level of respirable silica during the relevant time period.
B. Whether Holmes offered any evidence that he or his employer read or relied on any packaging, labels, or warnings provided by MSA, or if they had, they would have acted differently.
C. Whether product misuse materially changed the condition of the respirator after it left MSA's control, thus barring Holmes's design-defect claim.
D. Whether Holmes offered any evidence that established MSA knew or should have known in 1958 through 1964 that jackhammering concrete could result in exposure to respirable silica.
I. STATUTE OF LIMITATIONS
Standard of Review

¶ 8. MSA asserts the trial court erred in denying summary judgment based on the statute of limitations and also in denying MSA's motion for JNOV on the same. When reviewing a trial court's grant of summary judgment, this Court applies a de novo standard of review. MS Comp Choice, SIF v. Clark, Scott & Streetman, 981 So.2d 955, 959 (Miss.2008). Likewise, this Court applies de novo review of a trial court's denial of a motion for JNOV. Adcock v. Miss. Transp. Comm'n, 981 So.2d 942, 948 (Miss.2008). “A motion for JNOV is a challenge to the legal sufficiency of the evidence, and this Court will affirm the denial of a JNOV if,” viewing the evidence in a light most favorable to the verdict, “there is substantial evidence to support the verdict.” Id. (citing Johnson v. St. Dominics–Jackson Mem'l Hosp., 967 So.2d 20, 22 (Miss.2007) ).

A. Whether Holmes's claims are time-barred because he failed to commence this action within one year of dismissal of his prior-filed suit.

¶ 9. It is undisputed that Holmes first filed his claim on December 26, 2002, and that Holmes was dismissed from that suit on April 7, 2006. It is also undisputed that Holmes refiled his suit against MSA on May 16, 2007. What is disputed is the impact of the first filing on the statute of limitations and the applicability of the one-year savings statute. That is, did the filing of the initial suit toll the statute of limitations, and if not, was Holmes's claim saved by the savings statute?

The Parties' Arguments

¶ 10. MSA argues that, because the trial court dismissed Holmes from his first suit on April 7, 2006, pursuant to Canadian National v. Smith, 926 So.2d 839 (Miss.2006), Holmes had one year from April 7, 2006, to refile his suit against MSA under the one-year saving statute.6 MSA claims the dismissal of a plaintiff from a lawsuit on the ground that the plaintiff had been misjoined does not toll the statute of limitations, and because Holmes's suit initially was dismissed pursuant to Canadian National without prejudice and as a matter of form, the Mississippi one-year saving statute applied. Therefore, according to MSA, Holmes's claims were time-barred because he failed to file his second action within one year of being dismissed from the first suit.

¶ 11. Holmes argues MSA, by waiting 1,061 days before pursuing the statute-of-limitations claim, waived that defense, or, alternatively, that the limitations period was tolled while Holmes's first suit was pending. Holmes asserts that, when a complaint is filed, the statute of limitations is tolled for the entire pendency of the case.

¶ 12. So, in this case, according to Holmes, the statute of limitations began to run when he discovered he had silicosis on December 16, 2002. The limitations period then was tolled when Holmes filed suit on December 26, 2002. Therefore, as of December 26, 2002, Holmes had run off ten days of his three-year statute of limitations. Then, when his suit was dismissed on April 7, 2006, the statute of limitations began to run again, and Holmes had 1,085 days remaining on the limitations period in which to refile.7 Therefore, Holmes argues, his claim is not time-barred because he filed within 1,085 days of April 7, 2006.

Filing a complaint tolls the limitations period.

¶ 13. Not long ago, in a case similar to the one sub judice, this Court held that the filing of a complaint tolls the statute of limitations while a misjoined plaintiff's initial case is pending. Canadian Nat'l/Illinois Central R. Co. v. Smith, 926 So.2d 839, 845 (Miss.2006) (citing Watters v. Stripling, 675 So.2d 1242, 1244 (Miss.1996) ; Triple Transp., Inc. v. Dickens, 870 So.2d 1195, 1199 (Miss.2004) ; Deposit Guar. Nat'l Bank v. Roberts, 483 So.2d 348 (Miss.1986) ; Jeffery Jackson, Encyclopedia of Miss. Law, Laches and Limitations § 44.22 (Dec.2005)); see also Hosp. MD, LLC v. Larry, 138 So.3d 922, 927 (Miss.2014) ; Sweet Valley Missionary Baptist Church v. Alfa Ins. Corp., 124 So.3d 643, 645 (Miss.2013) (citing Hill v. Ramsey, 3 So.3d 120, 123 (Miss.2009) ) (“It is elementary that, unless process is not timely served, the statute of limitations is tolled upon the filing of the complaint, and does not begin to run again until litigation has ended.”); Price v. Clark, 21 So.3d 509, 521 (Miss.2009).

¶ 14. While Canadian National would seem to be dispositive on this point, MSA cites Clark Sand Co. v. Kelly, 60 So.3d 149 (Miss.2011), and Kinsey v. Pangborn Corp., 78 So.3d 301 (Miss.2011), in response. In Clark Sand, the plaintiff's initial claim, like today's, was part of a silica mass-tort action dismissed pursuant to Canadian National. Clark Sand, 60 So.3d at 153. However, the Clark Sand opinion is easily distinguished. In that case, the original plaintiff died prior to the second suit, and the second claim was brought by his girlfriend before she was appointed as his executrix. Id. The Court therefore held that she was not eligible to take advantage of the saving statute because she was not a party to the original suit, and, because she brought her wrongful-death action more than three years after the plaintiff's death, that claim was...

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