By Susan Engstrom
In a suit asserting claims against an automaker for alleged design and manufacturing defects, Oregon’s highest court held that under state law, when an Oregon products liability action involves a product that was manufactured in a state that has no statute of repose for an equivalent action, then the action in Oregon also is not subject to a statute of repose. In answering a question certified from a federal appellate panel, the state supreme court determined that the context and legislative history of the statute in question clearly showed that the legislature intended to give Oregonians with claims involving products manufactured out-of-state the option of litigating their claims in Oregon courts instead of requiring them to file suit in another state (Miller v. Ford Motor Co., June 7, 2018, Nelson, A.).
In the underlying case, the owner of a Ford Escape filed a products liability action against Ford Motor Company for damages arising from a fire that allegedly originated in the vehicle and spread to her dwelling, causing property damage. The vehicle owner also claimed that she had fractured her heel when she fell while trying to escape the fire. The vehicle had been manufactured by Ford in Missouri and was purchased by the owner in 2001. The alleged fire occurred in 2012. The action, which was filed in Oregon state court in 2014, was removed to Oregon federal court on the basis of diversity. Ford moved for summary judgment on the ground that Oregon’s 10-year statute of ultimate repose for products liability actions (Or. Rev. Stat. Sec. 30.905(2)) barred the claim. This statute (the "look-away provision") provides that a products liability action "must be commenced before the later of: (a) [t]en years after the date on which the product was first purchased for use or consumption; or (b) [t]he expiration of any statute of repose for an equivalent civil action in the state in which the product was manufactured[.]"
Prior proceedings. The federal district court ruled that the Oregon statute did not apply because it required the court to apply the repose period of the state of manufacture [see Products Liability Law Daily’s October 29, 2014 analysis]. Because Missouri has no statute of repose for products liability actions, the district court concluded that no such limitation applied to bar the vehicle owner’s claims. The automaker appealed the trial court’s decision.
In the Ninth Circuit’s view, the text of the statute appeared to predicate the application of the look-away provision on the existence of an equivalent statute of repose in the foreign state [see Products Liability Law Daily’s May 30, 2017 analysis]. However, the legislative history suggested that Oregon lawmakers may not have intended to impose this limitation. Because the appellate panel was aware of no controlling precedent in the state on this issue, and because resolution of the case turned solely on Oregon law, the panel certified to that state’s highest court the following question (rephrased by the state court for clarity): "If the state of manufacture has no statute of repose for actions equivalent to an Oregon products liability action, is a products liability action in Oregon subject to any statute of repose?"
Statute of repose. The state supreme court noted that Oregon’s statute of repose does not explicitly state what should occur when a manufacturing state does not have a statute of repose that would govern an "equivalent civil action." Ford argued that an Oregon plaintiff would be bound by Oregon’s 10-year suit limitations period in that situation because the absence of a statute of repose in the manufacturing state is not a "statute" and, thus, is not encompassed in the word "any" in the look-away provision ("[t]he expiration of any statute of repose for an equivalent civil action in the state in which the product was manufactured"). Likewise, the company asserted, if there is no statute of repose, then there is nothing to "expire."
Focusing instead on the legislature’s use of the word "commenced" ("an action must be commenced before the later of …"), the high court found that it was possible to interpret the text as meaning that when the manufacturing state does not have "any" statute of repose, there simply is no deadline by which a plaintiff must "commence" a products liability action. The text also suggested a legislative intent to give a plaintiff the benefit of the "later" of the two timeframes.
To resolve the textual ambiguity, the high court turned to the context and legislative history of the statute and found that the legislature’s intent was to allow Oregonians to bring their claims involving out-of-state-made products in Oregon courts. The history also was clear that the legislature intended to extend that benefit to all Oregonians with such claims—not just those with claims involving states that had enacted statutes of repose. There was no suggestion in the legislative record that Oregon plaintiffs in cases involving products manufactured in states without statutes of repose would be bound by Oregon’s 10-year suit limitations period.
Ford’s argument that the look-away provision would significantly expand liability exposure for out-of-state manufacturers was rejected, given that Oregonians already had the ability to bring suit in the state of manufacture when that state’s statute of repose—or lack thereof—permitted it. Ford also asserted that any interpretation of the look-away provision that is not limited to circumstances in which the manufacturing state had a statute of repose in 2009—the year in which the look-away provision was enacted—violated the Oregon Constitution as an impermissible delegation of legislative authority. Although the look-away provision allows an Oregon plaintiff to utilize another state’s repose period, it does not confer on any state’s legislature the power to create Oregon law. In that regard, the statute is more akin to a choice-of-law provision.
Accordingly, the state supreme court answered the Ninth Circuit’s certified question in the negative, holding that under the look-away provision, when an Oregon products liability action involves a product manufactured in a state that has no statute of repose for an equivalent civil action, then the action in Oregon likewise is not subject to a statute of repose.
The case is No. 29.
Attorneys: Elizabeth C. Savage (Ivan M. Karmel, PC) for Aline L. Miller. Janet M. Schroer (Hart Wagner LLP) for Ford Motor Co.
Companies: Ford Motor Co.
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