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Statute of Limitations Ends Smoking Case

By William Vogeler, Esq. on September 28, 2017 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

When William Hecht was a teenager, the Surgeon General warned that smoking caused chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

His mom, who suffered from COPD, warned him as well. After years of smoking, he developed the same condition.

He sued a tobacco company for allegedly concealing that smoking could cause his disease. A jury said it was too late, and a federal appeals court agreed.

Statute of Limitations

On appeal in Hecht v. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, Hecht argued that the trial judge gave the wrong jury instruction on the four-year statute of limitations. He said the statute should not have begun until he received his COPD diagnosis.

"The jury instruction given by the district court allowed the jury to determine whether Hecht was on notice that smoking cigarettes likely caused his illness," said the U.S. Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals. "And it correctly noted that a diagnosis of COPD was not necessary to begin the limitations period."

Hecht acknowledged that he had long suffered "significant wheezing" that left him "unable to breathe." But he claimed he did not know his CPOD was due to his smoking.

Creeping Killer

In Florida, where Hecht filed, the state Supreme Court concluded that "the cause of action accrues when the accumulated effects of the deleterious substance manifest themselves to the claimant in a way which supplies some evidence of a causal relationship to the manufactured product."

In Hecht's case, the jury found that he had enough information to know that smoking caused his disease long before he filed suit. He filed for disability benefits due to his condition in 1987, for example; his case passed the statute of limitations in 1990.

COPD is known as a creeping killer because it takes life slowly. Hecht lived long enough to make it court, but his case is most likely dead.

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