Sixty-one survivors of Pratt & Whitney employees who died of brain cancer lost their fight to sue the jet engine maker Tuesday when the state Supreme Court ruled against them.
But the battle continues on two fronts, with other cancer survivors pressing an ongoing lawsuit blaming the deaths on hazardous conditions at Pratt & Whitney plants, and with calls for changes in state law governing wrongful-death suits.
Richard Gross, the attorney suing in Superior Court in Waterbury, said the lawsuit had grown from 10 plaintiffs a year ago to more than 20.
Two years ago, the judge handling that case decided that among the original plaintiffs, 61 cases were filed too late to comply with requirements of Connecticut law, and threw them out. Survivors of the cancer victims appealed, leading to Tuesday's unanimous Supreme Court decision.
Now, Gross said Tuesday, he can return to arguing the original case -- with many fewer plaintiffs.
At the same time, Gross and his clients are urging the General Assembly to amend the wrongful-death statute to make it easier for future litigants to have their day in court.
Current law requires that cases be filed within two years of an alleged wrongful death and within five years of when the victim was last exposed to the cause -- in this case, when the person last worked at Pratt & Whitney.
Gross said some cases failed that test because brain cancers were not diagnosed until more than five years after the Pratt & Whitney employees retired. Others were excluded because the deaths occurred several years ago.
Legislators contacted Tuesday said they frequently moved to amend the law in reaction to court decisions, but were not sure whether they would try to change the wrongful-death law this session.
Gross noted that the Supreme Court acknowledged that its decision strictly construing the law's filing guidelines "reasonably may be characterized as a harsh, and even unfair, result."
"The upshot of that is there will be people in the future who will have lost their right to bring a case before they even knew that they had one," Gross said. With deaths from auto accidents or other trauma, the five-year rule makes sense, he said.
But he said the Legislature had extended the time span for filing product liability suits for asbestos exposure to 60 years. Also, under the state's product liability law, manufacturers may face damage suits for as long as 10 years after a product enters the market. And military claims of Agent Orange exposure in the Vietnam War -- dating from the 1960s or early 1970s -- need only be filed within two years of the date of diagnosis, not exposure.
"So [lawmakers] have made that recognition that these latent diseases require an extended period of time to discover," Gross said.
More than 36 workers at Pratt & Whitney plants in Connecticut have died of glioblastoma multiforme, a rare form of brain cancer. The company is spending more than $12 million on a study of the incidence of brain cancer at its plants covering roughly 250,000 people employed between 1952 and 2001.
Carol Shea, whose husband died in 2000 after working 34 years at Pratt, had organized a group of plaintiffs to join the suit. Shea said that she would write to lawmakers urging a change in the law, and that she planned to testify at any hearings.
"So we still have some options to deal with this, and we don't plan on quitting," she said.
Joel Faxon, a New Haven lawyer who specializes in wrongful-death lawsuits, agreed that there may be good reason to amend state law.
"I see a lot of cases where the two-year statute of limitation, which the Supreme Court has said must be firmly applied, acts as an unfair bar to really legitimate claims," he said. "There is a simple solution to that, and that would be for the Legislature to say two years from the discovery of a cause of action."
That standard, patterned after the state law governing personal injury damage claims, would allow for litigation by Pratt & Whitney families whose loved ones died several years ago and who only considered legal action after allegations of a brain cancer "cluster" among Pratt employees became public in 2001.