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Brocious v. United States Steel Corp.

United States District Court, D. Maryland

December 20, 2019

LORENE G. BROCIOUS, as Personal Representative of the Estate of JAMES COPPAGE Plaintiff,
UNITED STATES STEEL CORP., et al., Defendants.


          Stephanie A. Gallagher United States District Judge

         Plaintiff Lorene G. Brocious (“Plaintiff”), as Personal Representative of the Estate of her deceased husband, James Coppage, maintains this lawsuit against various manufacturers and producers of benzene-containing products (collectively, “Defendants”). ECF 1-4. One of the Defendants, United States Steel Corporation (“United States Steel”) filed the instant Motion for Summary Judgment on Statute of Limitations Only (“the Motion”), representing that the other Defendants join in the Motion and the requested relief. ECF 141. I have reviewed the Motion, along with Plaintiff's Opposition, and United States Steel's Reply. ECF 149, 150. No hearing is necessary. See Loc. R. 105.6 (D. Md. 2018). For the reasons that follow, I will grant the Motion in part and deny it in part.


         James Coppage worked as a pressman for various newspapers and printing companies for over more than forty years. ECF 141-3 at 12:20-16:24 (Coppage Dep.). His job required extensive interaction with inks and chemical solvents. See, e.g., id. at 18:11-20, 20:1-25:16, 31:1-21, 32:2-39:7.

         In 2012, Plaintiff's routine blood work showed elevated white blood cell counts. Id. at 84:11-85:20. His primary physician referred him to a hematologist/oncologist, Dr. Richard Schraeder. Id.; ECF 141-4 at 15:2-11 (Dr. Schraeder Dep.). On May 11, 2012, during an appointment with Dr. Schraeder, Dr. Schraeder noted Coppage's former employment and his exposure to petroleum products. ECF 149-2 at 76 (Ex. E at 2). Dr. Schraeder testified that he typically asks patients with potential leukemia or myelodysplasia about their work exposure history. ECF 141-4 at 19:14-21. He does not generally advise patients to investigate their increased risk of such conditions, and does not recall any particular discussion with Coppage about his chemical exposure. Id. at 19:22-20:18. Dr. Schraeder ordered a bone marrow biopsy to determine a more precise primary diagnosis, but the results were inconclusive. Id. at 35:8-18. Dr. Schraeder referred Coppage to Dr. Bruce Smith, an oncologist at Johns Hopkins. Id. Dr. Schraeder's report noted, “Overall, the findings are suspicious for a myeloproliferative disorder, such as chronic myelogenous leukemia.” ECF 141-5 at 2.

         On June 25, 2012, Dr. Smith met with Coppage, and advised him that he had a “bone marrow failure disorder.” ECF 149-2 at 72 (Ex. D at 54:3-55:2) (Dr. Smith Dep.). Again, Dr. Smith's notes reflect Coppage's chemical exposure during his employment as pressman for the Baltimore Sun, ECF 149-2 at 79 (Ex. F at 3), but Dr. Smith does not recall whether Coppage told him that information directly, or whether he reiterated information he had learned from Dr. Schraeder's records, ECF 149-2 at 71 (Ex. D at 15:12-16:19). Dr. Smith does not recall whether he discussed potential causes of bone marrow failure disorder with Coppage. Id. at 55:3-56:7. Because Coppage was generally healthy in 2012, Dr. Smith suggested continued monitoring of Coppage's blood levels. Id. at 57:21-24. Dr. Smith's notes state, “Bone marrow testing shows evidence for a bone marrow disorder likely a myeloproliferative, myelodysplastic crossover of some sort.” ECF 141-7 at 3. His assessment states “MPS/MPD, not further specified. I made the patient and his family aware that making it firm diagnosis for many bone marrow failure disorders is often a great challenge.” Id. at 4. During a visit to his urologist in 2012, Coppage advised the doctor that he had been diagnosed with a bone marrow disorder, and was undergoing observation. ECF 141-8 at 16:12-17:2 (Dr. Rubenstein Dep.).

         In 2016, Coppage's health declined, and he began receiving regular blood transfusions. ECF 149-2 at 12 (Ex. A at 92:1-93:8). In 2017, the doctors prescribed chemotherapy. Id. at 97:7-99:9. Specifically, in April, 2017, while Coppage was at Walgreens to pick up his chemotherapy drug, the pharmacist handed him a brochure discussing the connection between benzene exposure and myelodysplastic syndrome (“MDS”). Id. at 100:22-102:19. Coppage testified he had never asked any of his doctors what caused his bone marrow disorder, but upon reading that brochure, he “start[ed] putting things together.” Id. at 166:4-13. At that point, he “felt like it was a very good possibility that this benzene was in all the products that I worked around for 30 some years, ” and called a lawyer. Id. at 167:19-169:3.


         Under Rule 56(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, summary judgment is appropriate only “if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” The moving party bears the burden of showing that there is no genuine dispute of material facts. See Casey v. Geek Squad, 823 F.Supp.2d 334, 348 (D. Md. 2011) (citing Pulliam Inv. Co. v. Cameo Props., 810 F.2d 1282, 1286 (4th Cir. 1987)). If the moving party establishes that there is no evidence to support the non-moving party's case, the burden then shifts to the non-moving party to proffer specific facts to show a genuine issue exists for trial. Id. The non-moving party must provide enough admissible evidence to “carry the burden of proof in [its] claim at trial.” Id. at 349 (quoting Mitchell v. Data Gen. Corp., 12 F.3d 1310, 1315-16 (4th Cir. 1993)). The mere existence of a scintilla of evidence in support of the non-moving party's position will be insufficient; there must be evidence on which the jury could reasonably find in its favor. Id. at 348 (citing Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 251 (1986)). Moreover, a genuine issue of material fact cannot rest on “mere speculation, or building one inference upon another.” Id. at 349 (quoting Miskin v. Baxter Healthcare Corp., 107 F.Supp.2d 669, 671 (D. Md. 1999)).

         Additionally, summary judgment shall be warranted if the non-moving party fails to provide evidence that establishes an essential element of the case. Id. at 352. The non-moving party “must produce competent evidence on each element of [its] claim.” Id. at 348-49 (quoting Miskin, 107 F.Supp.2d at 671). If the non-moving party fails to do so, “there can be no genuine issue as to any material fact, ” because the failure to prove an essential element of the case “necessarily renders all other facts immaterial.” Id. at 352 (quoting Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23 (1986); Coleman v. United States, 369 Fed.Appx. 459, 461 (4th Cir. 2010) (unpublished)). In ruling on a motion for summary judgment, a court must view all of the facts, including reasonable inferences to be drawn from them, “in the light most favorable to the party opposing the motion.” Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587-88 (1986) (quoting United States v. Diebold, Inc., 369 U.S. 654, 655 (1962)).

         III. ANALYSIS

         The Motion contains two primary arguments: (1) that Counts I, III, IV, and V of Plaintiff's First Amendment Complaint are barred by Maryland's three-year statute of limitations; and (2) that Count II, claiming breach of warranty, is barred by Maryland's four-year statute of limitations. ECF 141-2 at 6-10. This Court concurs with the second argument, but finds that the first lacks merit.

         A. Counts I, III, IV, and V are not Time-Barred.

         The parties agree that Maryland law applies to their dispute, and that Maryland's three-year statute of limitations governs the claims asserted in Counts I, III, IV, and V of the First Amended Complaint. See ECF 141-2 at 6; ECF 149 at 10. Their disagreement revolves around the date on which Plaintiff's causes of action accrued. The parties agree that Maryland has adopted the discovery rule, which provides that the statute of limitations begins to run when the plaintiff “in fact knew or reasonably should have known of the wrong.” See Poffenberger v. Risser, 290 Md. 631, 637 (1981). Inquiry notice, where a plaintiff reasonably should have known of the wrong, is “awareness implied from ‘knowledge of circumstances which ought to have put a person of ordinary prudence on inquiry (thus, charging the ...

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