Indiana High Court Rules Statute of Repose Inapplicable in Cases of Protracted Exposure to Substances
On March 2, 2016, the Indiana Supreme Court rendered an opinion in the consolidated appeals in three cases. The Court held that the Indiana Product Liability Act’s statute of repose does not apply to cases involving plaintiffs who have had protracted exposure to inherently dangerous substances.
In all three cases underlying the Court’s opinion, the defendants had moved for summary judgment on the grounds that the plaintiffs’ asbestos-related claims were barred by the Indiana Product Liability Act’s statute of repose. IC 34-20-3-1. On appeal, the plaintiffs requested reconsideration of the Court’s decision in Allied Signal v. Ott, 785 N.E.2d 1069 (Ind. 2003). The instant Court denied the motion to reconsider its decision in Ott due to stare decisis and legislative acquiescence, but used Ott as the framework for its decision.
Reasoning of the Court
Ott held that the two-year period of limitations in section 2 of the Product Liability Act applies only to those defendants “who mined and sold commercial asbestos.” Ind. Code §§ 34-20-3-2(d)(1). All other defendants, per Ott, fell under the purview of section 1, which requires causes of action based on product liability be commenced within 10 years of the delivery of the product to the initial user. Ind. Code §§ 34-20-3-1(b). While this decision resulted in a distinction “between asbestos victims and other victims under the product liability act,” asbestos plaintiffs were not harmed because they either were subject to the provision of section 1 or were afforded the exception provided by section 2.
The instant plaintiffs, however, challenged a slightly different classification of plaintiffs created as a result of the Ott decision. The instant plaintiffs argued that under Ott’s auspices, there would be two kinds of “Section 2 plaintiffs” – asbestos victims injured by defendants who both mined and sold raw asbestos and asbestos victims injured by other defendants. Those plaintiffs who were harmed by defendants who mined and sold raw asbestos would not be subject to a period of repose and their claims could proceed, while plaintiffs harmed by defendants who sold asbestos-containing products may be barred under section 1’s statute of repose.
The instant Court analyzed whether this disparate treatment between “Section 2 plaintiffs” was “reasonably related to the inherent differences that distinguish the unequally treated classes” and whether the preferential treatment was “uniformly applicable and equally available to all persons similarly situated.” As to both facets, the analysis failed. Accordingly, the Court held that section 2 of the Product Liability Act offends the Equal Privileges and Immunities Clause.
The Court then had to determine the viability of the instant plaintiffs’ claims if section 2 were unconstitutional and therefore void. The Court had addressed section 1’s statute of repose in two previous decisions – Ott and Covalt v. Carey Canada, Inc., 785 N.E.2d 382 (Ind. 1989). In Covalt, the Court held that, by the terms of section 1 only, “a plaintiff may bring suit within two years of discovering a disease and its cause, notwithstanding that the discovery was made more than 10 years after the last exposure to the product that caused the diseases” in cases where the injury was caused as a “result of protracted exposure to a foreign substance.” While Ott had partially overruled Covalt on section 2 grounds, the finding of section 2 to be unconstitutional thereby restored Covalt. As a result, the instant Court held that the Product Liability Act’s statute of repose does not apply to cases involving protracted exposure to an inherently dangerous foreign substance.
Since the Indiana Supreme Court’s 2003 decision in Allied Signal v. Ott, defendants have been able to successfully obtain dismissals in Indiana, or in jurisdictions applying Indiana law, for asbestos-related claims. The effect of the instant decision may be the reopening of Indiana courts to asbestos-related product liability claims, akin to the litigation as it existed pre-2003. While the scope of how this decision will impact the litigation remains to be seen, it is anticipated that without the ten-year period of repose to protect defendants from liability, this decision may likely expose Indiana trial courts to an increase in claims.