Wednesday, October 7, 2020
Court of Appeal:
Applying Statute of Limitation of State Where Allegedly Defective Product Was Manufactured, Rather Than Law of California, Where Plaintiff Resides, Was Error, Opinion Says; Foreseeability Issue Remains
By a MetNews Staff Writer
The law of California, where the plaintiff resides and was injured through use of an allegedly defective product, must be applied in determining whether an action is timely, and not the statute of limitation of the state where the product, a truck liftgate, was manufactured and designed, Div. Three of the First District Court of Appeal held yesterday.
However, the court said, a jury’s finding that it was not foreseeable that the product would wind up in California would be fatal to the action.
Justice Teri L. Jackson authored the opinion, which was not certified for publication. It reverses a summary judgment granted by Contra Costa Superior Court Judge Susanne Fenstermacher in favor of defendant Thieman Tailgates, Inc., the Ohio company that made the liftgate.
The liftgate had been installed on a truck owned by Trinity Services Group which supplies food to correctional institutions. On April 25, 2014, plaintiff Michael Sullivan, who worked for Trinity, had delivered food to the Santa Rita Jail in Dublin, a city in Alameda County.
He was standing on the liftgate—which can be raised or lowered, to facilitate the loading or unloading of cargo—when it collapsed, causing him to suffer injuries.
Trial Court Decision
Fenstermacher granted summary judgment to Thieman after determining that Ohio law applies. A statute of that state provides that “no cause of action based on a product liability claim shall accrue against the manufacturer or supplier of a product later than ten years from the date that the product was delivered to its first purchaser or first lessee who was not engaged in a business in which the product was used as a component in the production, construction, creation, assembly, or rebuilding of another product.”
The initial sale of the product was in 1997, to a company in Kentucky. Through successive sales that year, it went to Minnesota, Montana, and then California.
Sullivan contended that California law—Code of Civil Procedure §335.1—should be applied, which requires that a products liability action be brought within two years of the “injury to…an individual caused by the wrongful act or neglect of another.” Under that statute, his action would be timely, having been brought precisely two years after the mishap.
The Contra Costa judge held that Ohio has a stronger interest than California in having its statute applied which protects “the rights of its manufacturers from stale litigation involving products out [of] their controls for many years.”
Appeals Court Opinion
Disagreeing, Jackson declared in yesterday’s opinion:
“[A] manufacturer s liability arises not simply from its design or construction of a defective product. Rather, a manufacturer’s liability arises from its placement of a defective product on the market. When it is reasonably foreseeable to the manufacturer that the defective product will enter California through the stream of commerce, the manufacturer may be held liable under California’s product liability law.”
“Thieman is… correct in asserting that California choice of law cases recognize a jurisdiction generally has the predominant interest in regulating conduct within its own borders….Thieman is wrong to suggest, however, that the conduct for which plaintiff seeks to impose liability is conduct that occurred wholly within Ohio’s borders. If, as plaintiff alleged, Thieman marketed a defective product in California or placed a defective product into the stream of commerce without warning foreseeable California consumers of the product’s hazards, Thieman may be held liable under California product liability law.”
Fenstermacher found that it was “not reasonably foreseeable that the lift gate would end up in California,” noting that “Thieman did not sell the lift gate in California, nor did it sell to a California corporation.”
Jackson said that determination was not one the trial court judge should have made, explaining:
“Foreseeability of harm to a consumer is a factual issue reserved for the jury….Plaintiff, as the party opposing summary judgment, was entitled to all favorable inferences reasonably drawn from the evidence….Here, there was evidence that Thieman conducted business in many states outside Ohio, including California—indeed, Thieman produced a ‘Customer List for California’ identifying dozens of such customers.”
Continuing, she wrote:
“A reasonable inference could thus be drawn that it was reasonably foreseeable that the subject liftgate would end up in the possession of a California resident. Neither the trial court nor Thieman identified any evidence requiring the opposite conclusion. Accordingly, there is a triable issue of fact in this case regarding the foreseeability of plaintiffs injury.”
Jackson also made note that the Ohio statute cited by Thieman was not in existence until 2005, so that Thieman “could not have relied” on it “when making key business decisions relating to its design and manufacture of the subject liftgate, including the decision to purchase any particular insurance policy to protect against liability arising therefrom.”
The case is Sullivan v. Thieman Tailgates, A155026.
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