By Leah S. Poniatowski, J.D.
Procedural nature of statute and lack of language to the contrary allowed retroactive application of amendment, which eliminated the 10-year limit for claims filed by workers.
A products liability lawsuit filed by the widow of a worker fatally injured in an excavator-related accident against the manufacturer and a vendor should not have been dismissed pursuant to the ten-year statute of repose because the recent amendment eliminating the time limit for workers’ claims was procedural in nature, the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled, reversing the lower court’s grant of summary judgment to the defendants (King v. Volvo Excavators AB, October 1, 2019, Mullins, R.).
The construction worker was employed by King Construction, Inc. (King) on a job site in May 2014. The worker was filling in a trench after a public water main pipe had been installed, and was assisted by another worker operating a Volvo model EC340 excavator. Unfortunately, the excavator’s bucket became detached and fatally injured the worker.
Excavator. The excavator at issue had been designed, manufactured, and distributed by Volvo Construction Equipment North America, LLC in 1997. Tyler Equipment Corporation acquired the excavator from another party, selling it to King in 1999. One of Tyler’s employees had installed a hydraulic quick fit attachment on the excavator’s arm before it was delivered to King. After receiving the excavator, King enrolled it in Volvo’s component assurance program, which extended the warranty on certain aspects of the machine. Tyler performed all the warranty repair work through the extended warranty period, which expired in November 2001.
The worker's surviving wife filed a lawsuit against Volvo Group North America, LLC, Volvo Construction Equipment North America, LLC, and Tyler, among others. She alleged that Volvo and Tyler were liable for the worker’s death pursuant to the Connecticut Product Liability Act, codified in the General Statutes at §52-577a. Both Volvo and Tyler filed motions for summary judgment premised on the applicable statute of repose, which barred product liability actions against any party later than ten years from when that party last had possession or control of the product. The trial court agreed that the statute of repose applied, and both motions were granted.
Legislative amendment. Before the state trial court resolved the summary judgment motions, the Connecticut legislature passed P.A. 17-97, which amended the statute of repose effective October 1, 2017. Prior to the amendment, products liability claims brought by individuals entitled to workers’ compensation were subject to the ten-year limit—but not claims filed by others who could "prove that the harm occurred during the useful safe life of the product." The legislature eliminated the statutory language distinguishing those claimants entitled to workers’ compensation, thus allowing employees to file claims after the ten-year period if they could prove the injury occurred during the "useful safe life" of the product.
The widow addressed the pre-amendment statutory language and argued that it was unconstitutional. The trial court acknowledged that the amendment had become law, but held that the amendment could not be applied retroactively to the claims at bar. The matter was appealed to the state high court.
Retroactive application. According to established precedent, in civil cases, procedural statutes are presumed to apply retrospectively "absent a clear expression of legislative intent to the contrary." As to whether a statute of repose is procedural or substantive, the state high court relied upon case law providing that statutes of limitations are generally considered to be procedural "especially where the statute contains only a limitation as to time with respect to a right of action and does not itself create the right of action." Accordingly, the high court’s analysis first examined whether the statute of repose was substantive or procedural in nature. With respect to the product liability act, the high court previously had ruled that the legislative history revealed that there was not a wholly new right created by the act. Therefore, the statute of repose provided in the General Statutes §52-577a is procedural in nature.
The high court reviewed the language of P.A. 17-97 to conclude that there was no express intention that the amendment should not be applied retroactively, particularly as there was other support for this conclusion in the language of the statutory section. Subsection (g) provides that "[t]he provisions of this section shall apply to all product liability claims brought on or after October 1, 1979," and the legislature had the knowledge that the amendment would be read in conjunction with this subsection to apply to "all product liability claims brought on or after October 1, 1979" which had not had a final judgment entered. Because the trial court held that the amendment did not apply retroactively, its grants of summary judgment were improper and those judgments were reversed.
The case is No. SC 20097.
Attorneys: Ralph J. Monaco (Conway, Londregan, Sheehan, & Monaco PC) for Donita J. King. Francis H. LoCoco (Husch Blackwell LLP) for Volvo Excavators AB.
Companies: Volvo Excavators AB
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