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Good things can come in small packages.

In Greer v. Medtronic, No. 4;08CV042-P-B, slip op. (N.D. Miss. Apr. 25, 2008), plaintiff pleaded a host of product liability claims against Medtronic relating to an implantable cardiac defibrillator. But the decedent had died on January 22, 2005, and plaintiff didn’t file her complaint until February 20, 2008, seemingly a month after the three-year statute of limitations had expired.

Plaintiff insisted that her complaint was timely, because she was not aware of the likely cause of the decedent’s death until February 21, 2005, when she received a letter from Medtronic allegedly alerting her to a possible defect in the defibrillator.

A 2005 decision by a federal trial court in Mississippi held that Mississippi’s “discovery rule” required a plaintiff to know of both an injury and its possible cause before the statute of limitations would begin to run. See Beck v. Koppers, 2005 WL 2715910 (N.D. Miss. 2005).

Medtronic asserted that a later Mississippi Supreme Court case, PPG Architectural Finishes v. Lowery, 909 So.2d 47 (Miss. 2005), focused on knowledge of only the injury itself, not its cause, and thus implicitly limited the discovery rule.

In Greer, the court rejected the gist of Medtronic’s argument, but nonetheless ruled in the company’s favor. (If you’ve gotta lose, that’s the way to do it.)

The court held that, after Lowery, plaintiffs must still be aware of both the injury and its possible cause for the statute of limitations to begin to run.

But, said the court, in a case pleading wrongful death caused by the alleged failure of a defibrillator, the death itself put plaintiff on notice of the injury’s possible cause. Plaintiff knew the decedent “died from heart failure on January 22, 2005. At that moment, with the exercise of reasonable diligence, she could have discovered that she probably had an actionable injury or knew or reasonably should have known that some negligent conduct had occurred.” Greer, slip op. at 6. The statute of limitations thus began to run on the date of death and expired three years later.

In cases of wrongful death, or where an implant breaks, or in other situations where the alleged injury and its possible cause are related, defendants shouldn’t be shy to assert that the discovery rule will not result in additional time within which to file a complaint.