By Georgia D. Koutouzos, J.D.
Ohio-based manufacturer’s argument that Ohio’s 10-year statute of repose barred claims was rejected.
Pennsylvania law and not Ohio law governed a Pennsylvania federal court’s resolution of an injured consumer’s product liability claims against the manufacturer of a snow thrower whose tire rim failed, a federal appellate panel ruled in an unpublished decision upholding a $183,000+ verdict favoring the consumer. Pivotal to the case at both the trial court level and on appeal was a conflict of laws issue, which both courts resolved by weighing each state’s contacts and interests before concluding that the Commonwealth had the greater interest in the litigation’s outcome (Alley v. MTD Products, Inc., July 10, 2020, Beetlestone, W.).
A consumer who had sustained a serious injury when the tire rim on a snow thrower failed and burst while he was seating the bead of the tire onto the thrower filed suit in Pennsylvania federal court against the device’s manufacturer, asserting strict liability and negligence claims against the company. The manufacturer moved for summary judgment on the claims, arguing that Ohio’s 10-year statute of repose was applicable and barred the injured man’s claims.
Trial court’s decision. Applying Pennsylvania’s choice of law provisions, the trial court found that a true conflict of laws existed because Pennsylvania does not provide for a statute of repose in product liability actions. The court found that the Commonwealth had stronger and more relevant contacts and interests because the consumer was a Pennsylvania resident, he had purchased the snow thrower in Pennsylvania, he had used it only in Pennsylvania, and he had been injured by the snow thrower there [see Products Liability Law Daily’s December 21, 2017 analysis]. Therefore, the trial court denied the summary judgment motion, ultimately awarding the consumer $183,480.48 against the manufacturer after adding $12,947.74 in delay damages to a $170,532.74 jury verdict.
Conflict of laws analysis. The manufacturer appealed the trial court’s decision, arguing on appeal that the lower court erred in rejecting the argument that the Ohio statute of repose applied to bar the consumer’s claims. Agreeing with the trial court that the case presented a "true conflict" because both Ohio and Pennsylvania had an interest in applying its own laws, the appellate panel conducted a qualitative analysis of each state’s contacts under Section 145(2)(a)-(d) of the Restatement (Second) of Conflict of Laws in order to determine which state had the most significant contacts or relationships with the incident as well as the greatest governmental interest in seeing its laws enforced.
Relationship with Ohio. In that regard, the manufacturer certainly had identified contacts that weighed in favor of applying Ohio’s law, the panel said, noting that: (1) the company is headquartered and has its principal place of business in Ohio; (2) its product quality, safety, and testing departments as well as some of its manufacturing, warehouse, and distribution facilities also are located in Ohio; (3) it employs 100 engineers in Ohio; and (4) the snow thrower in question had been designed, engineered, and tested in Ohio.
Relationship with Pennsylvania. Conversely, as a Pennsylvania resident who had purchased and used the product in Pennsylvania, the injured man had a justifiable expectation that Pennsylvania law would apply should the untoward happen, but the manufacturer of a nationally marketed product could not expect Ohio law to apply everywhere. Therefore, viewing the factors qualitatively as opposed to quantitatively, the panel concluded that the parties’ relationship was centered in Pennsylvania, not Ohio.
Pennsylvania’s lack of a repose provision. In so ruling, the panel rejected the manufacturer’s argument that Ohio’s codification of its public policy rationales underpinning the state’s statute of repose weighed in favor of applying Ohio law, while Pennsylvania’s lack of a statute of repose and any such codification suggested "mere inaction." It did not necessarily follow from Pennsylvania’s lack of a statute of repose that the Commonwealth’s interests were less strong than Ohio’s, the panel advised, adding that reading the tea leaves as to why the state had not enacted one did not fall within the panel’s bailiwick.
Presumption favoring forum state’s laws. Prior case law instructs that where each state has an interest in the application of its laws and the application of the foreign state’s law would frustrate the purposes of the forum state, the presumption is to apply the law of the forum. And the law of the forum should be applied even though a foreign state also has an interest in the application of its contrary policy. Accordingly, the trial court’s decision was affirmed.
The case is No. 19-3024.
Attorneys: Daniel Schiffman (Schiffman Firm) for Reynolds Alley. Frederick W. Bode, III (Dickie McCamey & Chilcote) for MTD Products, Inc., MTD Products Ltd., MTD LLC., MTD Holdings, Inc. and MTD Consumer Group, Inc.
Companies: MTD Products, Inc.; MTD Products Ltd.; MTD Holdings, Inc.; MTD Consumer Group. Inc.; MTD LLC
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