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Thomas Boettcher; Pamelia Vennerberg v. Conoco Phillips, CO.; Phillips 66, CO.
Western District of Oklahoma Federal Courthouse - Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
Case Number: 17-6115
Judge: Michael R. Murphy
Court: United States District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma (Oklahoma County)
Plaintiff's Attorney: Jason Aamodt, David Baluk, Kalyn Free, Ryan Gray, Trae Gray, Keith Patton, Krystina Phillips, Steve Stidham, Dallas L Dale Strimple
Defendant's Attorney: Robert J. Carlson, Scott R. Rowland, Brett J. Young
Description: Plaintiffs-Appellants Thomas Boettcher and Pamelia Vennerberg (the
“Boettchers”) appeal from the district court’s order granting the motion to dismiss
filed by Defendants-Appellees ConocoPhillips Company and Phillips 66 Company
(collectively “ConocoPhillips”). The amended complaint alleged that Mr.
Boettcher’s cancer was caused by exposure to emissions from ConocoPhillips’s
refinery in Ponca City, Oklahoma. The district court concluded the Boettchers’
claims were untimely because they failed to plead sufficient facts to support
application of the discovery rule. On appeal, the Boettchers argue the complaint
is sufficient and the district court failed to accept the allegations therein as true.
Exercising jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1291, we affirm the district
court’s dismissal of the Boettchers’ complaint.
The Boettchers’ amended complaint alleges that Mr. Boettcher lived near
the ConocoPhillips refinery from 1944 until 1962. It further alleges Mr.
Boettcher was exposed to benzene and benzene-containing chemicals released
from the refinery and those emissions caused him to develop multiple myeloma.
Mr. Boettcher’s cancer diagnosis was made in 2011, but the Boettchers’ claims
were not brought until 2016. ConocoPhillips moved to dismiss the Boettchers’
amended complaint, asserting their claims were time barred as a matter of law.1
Specifically, it argued the complaint failed to establish a factual basis for tolling
the two-year limitations period and, thus, the discovery rule was inapplicable.
1ConocoPhillips had previously moved to dismiss the Boettchers’ original
complaint, also asserting the claims were time-barred and no grounds existed to
justify tolling the limitations period. In response, the Boettchers sought leave to
amend their complaint, which the district court granted. The dismissal of the
amended complaint is the subject of this appeal.
See Okla. Stat. Ann. tit. 12, § 95(A)(3) (establishing a two-year statute of
limitations for negligence and strict liability claims); Lester v. Smith, 198 P.3d
402, 403 (Okla. Civ. App. 2008) (“The discovery rule allows limitation periods in
tort cases to be tolled until the injured party knows or, in the exercise of
reasonable diligence, should have known of the injury.” (quotation omitted)).
The Boettchers’ amended complaint alleged as follows with respect to the
discovery rule: “Plaintiffs did not know or discovery [sic] the underlying factual
basis for, or a potential or actual causal relationship between Mr. Boettcher’s
exposures to benzene and multiple myeloma giving rise to this lawsuit until
learning of same in August 2015.”
The Boettchers did not challenge ConocoPhillips’s assertion that their
claims were untimely unless the discovery rule applied. Instead, they argued the
statement in their amended complaint alleging they did not discover a causal
connection between Mr. Boettcher’s cancer and his exposure to emissions from
the refinery until August 2015, is a factual allegation sufficient to toll the statute
of limitations and must be accepted as true. They asserted no further detail was
necessary or possible.
In a well-reasoned Order, the district court thoroughly considered the
parties’ arguments. The court agreed with ConocoPhillips that a limitations issue
may be resolved on a motion to dismiss when it is evident from the complaint that
the plaintiff’s claims are untimely.2 The district court also agreed with
ConocoPhillips that the statement in the Boettchers’ amended complaint did not
contain facts sufficient to demonstrate a basis for tolling the applicable statute of
limitations. Under Oklahoma law, the discovery rule tolls the limitations period
until the plaintiff knows of, or in the exercise of reasonable diligence should have
known of, the injury. Daugherty v. Farmers Co-op Ass’n, 689 P.2d 947, 950-51
(Okla. 1984). The amended complaint alleged the Boettchers were aware of Mr.
Boettcher’s injury in 2011 but did not actually discover its alleged cause until
2015. The district court concluded these facts, even accepted as true, were
insufficient because the complaint contained no facts addressing how the
Boettchers exercised reasonable diligence or why they were unable to discover
the cause of Mr. Boettcher’s cancer prior to 2015. See id. at 951 (“A plaintiff is
chargeable with knowledge of facts which he ought to have discovered in the
exercise of reasonable diligence.”).
“We review de novo the district court’s granting of a motion to dismiss
under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6).” Slater v. A.G. Edwards & Sons,
2The Boettchers have never challenged ConocoPhillips’s assertions that the
applicable limitations period for their claims is two years and they bear the
burden of establishing a factual basis to toll that period. See Aldrich v.
McCulloch Props., Inc., 627 F.2d 1036, 1041 n.4 (10th Cir. 1980) (“While the
statute of limitations is an affirmative defense, when the dates given in the
complaint make clear that the right sued upon has been extinguished, the plaintiff
has the burden of establishing a factual basis for tolling the statute.”).
Inc., 719 F.3d 1190, 1196 (10th Cir. 2013). Although “a complaint attacked by a
Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss does not need detailed factual allegations, a
plaintiff’s obligation to provide the grounds of his entitlement to relief requires
more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a
cause of action will not do.” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555
(2007) (quotations, citations, and alterations omitted). We have reviewed the
parties’ appellate briefs and contentions, the district court’s Order, and the entire
record on appeal. Based upon that de novo review, we agree with the district
court that the Boettchers’ amended complaint contains only a conclusory
statement as to the application of the discovery rule and lacks any factual
allegations relevant to the Boettchers’ exercise of reasonable diligence. Thus,
based on the facts alleged, it cannot be concluded that the discovery rule tolls the
two-year limitations period. We affirm the grant of ConocoPhillips’s motion to
dismiss for substantially those reasons set out in the district court’s Order dated
April 24, 2017, with the following addition.
In an argument not presented to the district court, the Boettchers assert the
discovery rule tolls the statute of limitations in toxic tort cases until an expert
opines on the cause of the plaintiff’s injury. During their oral presentation to this
court, the Boettchers wisely retreated from this unpreserved and unsupported
argument. Instead, they asserted an expert opinion is one factor to be considered
when examining the sufficiency of a complaint and “there has to be an expert
source within the facts.” They then asked this court to infer that they did not
consult with an expert until August 2015, because their amended complaint
alleges that was the date on which they discovered the cause of Mr. Boettcher’s
cancer. Even ignoring that this argument is also unpreserved, both at the trial and
appellate levels, it does not provide the Boettchers with an avenue for relief.
First, they do not explain how or why the facts alleged in the complaint make that
inference plausible or reasonable. Additionally, even if the amended complaint
specifically stated that the Boettchers did not consult with an expert until August
2015, it still contains no facts from which it could be concluded that the
Boettchers exercised reasonable diligence between the time of Mr. Boettcher’s
diagnosis and that consultation. Thus, the fact we are asked to infer does not
affect our conclusion that the Boettchers’ amended complaint fails to adequately
plead application of the discovery rule.
Outcome: The judgment of the district court is affirmed.