COLUMBUS - In a decision that one justice claimed leaves consumers holding "ticking time bombs," the Ohio Supreme Court yesterday upheld a state law preventing lawsuits against manufacturers 10 years after they deliver their products.
The court, however, said the law could not bar the courthouse door to Douglas Groch of Rossford, a General Motors Powertrain employee whose right forearm and wrist were injured by a 28-year-old trim press.
The court found that the new law could not retroactively apply to Mr. Groch because his injury occurred just 34 days before Senate Bill 80 took effect on April 7, 2005. The law would have effectively prevented Mr. Groch from suing GM and the equipment's manufacturer, the Kard Corp. and its Wisconsin-based successor, Racine Federated Inc.
The law "operates unreasonably as applied to (Mr. Groch and his daughter, Chloe) because it provided them with only 34 days to commence their suit, with the consequence that they lost their cause of action if they did not file suit within 34 days," wrote Justice Maureen O'Connor for the majority. "When we look to the other provisions of (state law), we determine that a reasonable time to commence a suit in this situation should have been two years from the date of the injury."
In its latest ruling largely upholding business-backed legislative limits on litigation, the 6-1 decision also found that employers have a right to their own medical, wage, and other expenses from settlements or verdicts ultimately awarded to injured workers.
While agreeing with some portions of the decision, Justice Paul Pfeifer argued in his dissenting opinion that the decision potentially affects anyone using any product more than 10 years old, whether it's an elevator, lawnmower, airplane, or a bridge.
"It is a harrowing thought that the products we use today that may be ticking time bombs - be they food additives, cell phones, automobiles - after 10 years can leave us profoundly injured with no hope of recovery against the tortfeasor," he wrote.
"For manufacturers, the bomb stops ticking at 10 years," he wrote. "For Ohio's consumers, once but no longer protected by the Ohio Constitution, the ticking continues."
The court issued its ruling at the request of U.S. District Court in Toledo, where Mr. Groch's lawsuit against GM and the press' manufacturer is pending.
"The theory is that it's more appropriate [to place the burden on] the current user of the product, who had control of the product over the ensuing 10 years and may have used it in a different way or modified it in ways to suit that particular business," said Robert Eddy, the Toledo attorney representing the trim press manufacturer.
"It's unfair to place the burden on the original manufacturer to defend a product liability claim for a product that's been out in the market so long," he said.
But Mr. Groch's attorneys, Kevin J. Boisoneault and Ted Bowman, argued that the law essentially closes the courthouse door to someone injured by a product even before the injury occurs.
"You could literally have a person go to work at a factory on the third shift starting at 11 p.m., working on a machine manufactured 10 years ago that day," said Mr. Boisoneault. "At the strike of midnight, that person could be injured on the machine and not have a cause of action against the manufacturer."
Joining Justice O'Connor's answers to the federal court were Chief Justice Thomas Moyer and Justices Evelyn Lundberg Stratton, Judith Lanzinger, Terrence O'Donnell, and Robert Cupp.
Justice Pfeifer, the sole dissenter, is the only remaining member of what was once a 4-3 majority that repeatedly struck down legislative attempts to limit jury awards and the time available to sue in some cases.
The court recently upheld another portion of Senate Bill 80 that capped noneconomic and punitive damages that could be awarded in product liability, negligence, and other litigation.
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