By Leah S. Poniatowski, J.D.
A postal employee who had been injured while using an elevator when delivering packages at a federal building in Ohio was unsuccessful in her claims against a later-added elevator company because, under Kentucky law, the privity of contract exception did not apply, the elevator company had been added as a defendant after the applicable statute of limitations had run, the relation-back rule was inapplicable, and the employee’s public-policy argument was unavailing, a federal court in Kentucky ruled, granting the later-added company’s motion for judgment on the pleadings (Warndorf v. Otis Elevator Co., January 8, 2019, Bunning, D.).
The postal worker had arrived at the federal building to make package deliveries and alleged that when she rode the elevator, it abruptly dropped two floors, causing her to injure her dead, neck, and back. She filed a lawsuit against Otis Elevator Co. and other unknown defendants employed at the building. She later amended her complaint to include another elevator maker, KONE, Inc., as a defendant, and asserted several negligence and related claims against that company. KONE filed a motion for judgment on the pleadings.
Choice of law. As an initial matter, the court determined that under Kentucky’ choice-of-law rules, Kentucky law governed the lawsuit because the commonwealth’s tort law was developed to protect its residents, which include the postal worker.
Privity of contract. Under Kentucky law, a breach-of-warranty claim must be accompanied by privity of contract between the plaintiff and the defendant in order to succeed, unless the family-member or household-guest statutory exception was applicable. In that regard, the court found that there was no privity between the postal worker and KONE, and that the statutory exception did not apply. For one thing, the only contractual relationship that the postal worker had alleged in her complaint was between the General Services Administration and KONE. Secondly, the statutory exception did not apply because the injured worker was not a family member of the General Services Administration and the injury did not occur in a home. Accordingly, her breach-of-warranty claim against KONE was without merit.
Statute of limitations. Kentucky law provides that causes of action occurring out of the commonwealth but governed by Kentucky law are subject to the shorter statute of limitations period pursuant to its borrowing statute. In this case, Ohio’s statute of limitations for personal-injury claims is two years and Kentucky’s is one year; therefore, Kentucky’s shorter period applied. However, the postal worker had filed her claim against KONE three months after the one-year limitations period had passed. The court also determined that the relation-back federal rule could not rescue the claim because federal appellate precedent instructs that the federal rules’ protections are not designed to correct the problem of not uncovering a potentially liable party during the limitations period. Because the remaining claims against KONE did not relate back to the injured worker’s original complaint, they were barred by the statute of limitations. Correspondingly, her punitive damages claim against KONE was dismissed because the substantive claims against KONE had been dismissed.
Public policy. The postal worker asserted that dismissing the claims against KONE would be unjust, which were taken to be public-policy arguments. The court explained that it could not enter a judgment on that basis because the Kentucky Supreme Court had established that such determinations are matters for the legislature and not the courts. Consequently, the dismissals of the causes of action against KONE were unchanged by the public policy arguments and KONE’s motion to for judgment on the pleadings was granted.
The case is No. 17-159-DLB-CJS.
Attorneys: Bonnie J. Rickert (Grubbs Rickert Landry, PLLC) for Diane Warndorf. Seth H. Wamelink (Tucker Ellis LLP) for Otis Elevator Co. Philip M. Longmeyer (Dinsmore & Shohl LLP) for KONE, Inc.
Companies: Otis Elevator Co.; Kone, Inc.
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