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In re Agent Orange Product Liability Litigation

decided: April 21, 1987.


Appeals from summary judgments and a Rule 37(b)(2) dismissal of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York (Weinstein, C.J.) entered in favor of defendants in actions brought by civilian plaintiffs seeking recovery for injuries allegedly sustained through exposure to Agent Orange. Dismissal of Hogan action pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 37(b)(2) affirmed. Summary judgment in favor of appellees and against appellants, Oshita and Takatsuki, affirmed. Dismissal of appellant Fraticelli's claim against appellee chemical companies vacated and matter remanded to district court for further proceedings. Summary judgment dismissing Fraticelli's cause of action against the United States vacated and this cause of action remanded to the district court with instructions to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction.

Author: Van Graafeiland


The above captioned appeals raise a number of issues distinct from that of causal relation, the dominant issue in most Agent Orange cases, and will be disposed of largely on the basis of those unrelated issues. The appeals are from a dismissal pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 37(b)(2) and from summary judgments, granted by Chief Judge Weinstein of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York in opinions reported at 611 F. Supp. 1290 and 611 F. Supp. 1285 . The Rule 37(b)(2) dismissal was against Dr. Gerald Hogan, a resident of Nevada. The summary judgments dismissed the complaints of three residents of Hawaii, James K. Oshita and Masao Takatsuki, who sue for personal injuries, and Clara Fraticelli, who sues for wrongful death of her husband, William. Our discussion of the background and procedural history of this litigation appears in Judge Winter's lead opinion, No. 84-6273. For purposes of convenience, the appeals were briefed and argued together.


In 1966, Gerald Hogan, a thirty-five-year old doctor, spent four months in Vietnam under contract with the United States Agency for International Development. For one month, he worked at a civilian hospital in Da Nang. During the remaining three months, he was a patient in a United States hospital in the same city. he now claims that a variety of illnesses from which he suffers were caused by exposure to Agent Orange which had accumulated on the clothing of native patients or was carried by dust in the air.

In 1981, Dr. Hogan sued to recover for his injuries, and, in due course, his case became part of the multidistrict litigation in the Eastern District of New York. On march 15, 1985, the magistrate appointed by Chief Judge Weinstein to control discovery ordered that Dr. Hogan's oral deposition be taken on March 21 and 22. The deposition was commenced in the yard of Dr. Hogan's home but was discontinued after several hours when Dr. Hogan, claiming that he was suffering from cardiac arrhythmia (an alteration in the rhythm of the heart beat), refused to continue. The magistrate ordered plaintiff examined by an independent physician, who reported that the deposition could be continued without adversely affecting the plaintiff's health. Nonetheless, with a conceded understanding of the possible consequences of his refusing to continue with the deposition, Dr. Hogan refused. The district court found that plaintiff's claim of ill health was unfounded, "an excuse to prevent being embarrassed by a searching deposition:, and a "blatant attempt to frustrate discovery." 611 F. Supp. at 1294-95.

In view of the district court's factual findings, which are not clearly erroneous, and Dr. Hogan's awareness of the consequences of his refusal to obey the magistrate's order, we reject Dr. Hogan's contention that the district court erred in dismissing his complaint. Although dismissal unquestionably was strong medicine, the "harshest of all . . . orders," Cine Forty-Second Street Theatre Corp. v. Allied Artists Pictures Corp., 602 F.2d 1062, 1066 (2d Cir. 1979), disposition of the almost unprecedented volume of Agent Orange cases would be interminably delayed if the participants were permitted to disobey court order with little fear of sanction. In litigation of such epic proportions as this, it is particularly important that "the most severe in the spectrum of sanctions provided by statute or rule must be available to the district court . . ., not merely to penalize those who conduct may be deemed to warrant such a sanction, but to deter those who might be tempted to such conduct in the absence of such a deterrent." National hockey League v. Metropolitan hockey Club, Inc., 427 U.S. 639, 643, 49 L. Ed. 2d 747, 96 S. Ct. 2778 (1976); see United States Freight Co. v. Penn Central Transp. Co., 716 F.2d 954 (2d Cir. 1983) (per curiam); Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hughes, 332 F.2d 602, 615 (2d Cir. 1964), cert. dismissed, 380 U.S. 248 and 249, 13 L. Ed. 2d 817, 85 S. Ct. 934 (1965). The judgment of the district court is affirmed.


In 1967, while James Oshita, Masao Takatsuki and William J. Fraticelli were working for the University of Hawaii at its College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources, they allegedly sustained injuries caused by exposure to Agent Orange which was being tested in the field by University employees. All three field worker's Compensation claims, Oshita and Fraticelli in 1979 and Takatsuki in 1981, and all were awarded benefits. Fraticelli died in April 1981. On January 12, 1981, Oshita and Takatsuki presented administrative claims to the United States pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2401(b); no such claim has been filed by Fraticelli's widow, Clara. On January 11, 1982, Oshita, Takatsuki and Clara Fraticelli, on behalf of herself and husband's estate, commenced this suit in the United States District Court for he District of Hawaii seeking relief not only for themselves but also for a proposed class consisting of everyone on the Island of Kauai who had been exposed to Agent orange. In addition to the several chemical companies which allegedly manufactured the injurious herbicide, the complaint named as defendants ten Regents or former Regents of the University of Hawaii, together with the United States and its Department of Defense. Over the objection of the plaintiffs, the case was transferred to the Eastern District of New York by the Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation.

In Hawaii, an action for personal injuries must be brought within two years after the cause of action accrues. Haw. Rev. Stat. § 657-7. A claim accrues under this statute when the plaintiff discovers or reasonably should have discovered the complained of act, the injury and the causal connection between the two. Yamaguchi v. Queen's medical Center, 65 Haw. 84, 648 P.2d 689 (1982). The district court held that, insofar as the plaintiffs' personal injury claims were concerned, the two-year statute started to run no later than 1979, and appellants concede that the Hawaiian statute, standing alone, would have barred their common-law, personal injury claims prior to the bringing of their suits in 1982. However, relying on American Pipe & Constr. Co. v. Utah, 414 U.S. 538, 38 L. Ed. 2d 713, 94 S. Ct. 756 (1974), and Crown, Cork & Seal Co., Inc. v. Parker, 462 U.S. 345, 76 L. Ed. 2d 628, 103 S. Ct. 2392 (1983), they contend that the running of the statute was tolled by the bringing of the principal Agent Orange class action. This reliance is misplaced.

The limitation periods of American Pipe and Crown Cork were derived from federal statutes. Here, we are dealing with Hawaii's limitation statutes. Because none of them provides for tolling in a situation such as exists here, it is doubtful that either American Pipe or Crown, Cork can be treated as applicable precedent. See Chardon v. Fumero Soto, 462 U.S. 650, 660-62, 77 L. Ed. 2d 74, 103 S. Ct. 2611 (1983); Board of Regents v. Tomanio, 446 U.S. 478, 483-86, 64 L. Ed. 2d 440, 100 S. Ct. 1790 (1980); Johnson v. Railway Express Agency, Inc., 421 U.S. 454, 466-67, 44 L. Ed. 2d 295, 95 S. Ct. 1716 (1975).

We note, however, Justice Rehnquist's categorical statement in his Chardon dissent that "if the law of a particular State was that the pendency of a class action did not toll the statute of limitations as to unnamed class members, there seems little question but that the federal rule of American Pipe would nonetheless be applicable." 462 U.S. at 667. Assuming that for "the purposes of litigatory efficiency served by class actions", Johnson, supra, 421 U.S. at 467 n.12, the district court agreed with this observation, Oshita's and Takatsuki's claims against the chemical companies still were properly barred.

In American Pipe the Court declared the pertinent tolling rule to be that the commencement of a class action tolls the applicable statute of limitations "as to all asserted members of the class who would have been parties had the suit been permitted to continue as a class action." 414 U.S. at 554. In the instant case, the principal Agent Orange action upon which these personal injury claimants base their claim of tolling was certified as a class action and continued as such until it was settled. These Hawaiian claimants never became part of that action. Instead, a stated above, they attempted unsuccessfully to initiate their own class action on behalf of the populace of Kauai. Moreover, their attorney, in an affidavit opposing the removal of their action to the Eastern District of New York, stated that the issues involved in the Hawaiian plaintiffs' suit were "substantially different" from those in the other actions and that the causes of action were "separate and distinct" from those in the already-removed actions. To some extent, at least, he was correct.

From the very outset, the district court recognized the principal Agent Orange class action as one brought on behalf of "Vietnam war veterans and members of their families claiming to have suffered damages as a result of the veterans' exposure to herbicides in Vietnam." 506 F. Supp. 762, 768 . This recognition was based upon a fair reading of the original class action complaints. The class which the district court certified consisted of such veterans, their ...

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