Related Practices

Product Liability Statute of Limitations: Knowledge and Suspicion

General criteria

The goal of a manufacturer is to produce valuable and efficient products for the consuming public. In so doing, however, it may run across the situation where a person is allegedly injured through the use of one of its products. When this happens, if the injured party believes that the manufacturer is responsible for his or her injuries, because the product was supposedly defective in some manner, the party may file a product liability suit against the manufacturer.

Manufacturers understandably want certainty when it comes to dealing with product liability lawsuits. They want to know, among other things, when such an action might be filed. In other words, they do not want to wait around for great lengths of time, then try to defend themselves against a suit involving facts that are difficult to remember or investigate.

This problem is dealt with by the rule, which is applicable in every state, that a product liability suit must be filed in court within a certain period of time. This is referred to as the statute of limitations. In California, the limitation period for product liability cases resulting in personal injuries is two years. But the question is then raised: Within two years of what?

Case law

In the 2005 court case of Fox v. Ethicon Endo-Surgery, Inc., the California Supreme Court set the guidelines for product liability statute of limitations issues. In that case, a patient filed a products liability cause of action against the manufacturer of the stapler used in her surgery, alleging that a defect in the stapler caused an injury. The court decided that the accrual of the products liability cause of action (that is, the time when the cause of action began to run), which normally would have begun following her injury, was delayed until the patient had reason to suspect that the injury resulted from the allegedly defective product. In other words, knowledge of the injury alone, without suspicion of wrongdoing, does not start the running of the statute. All three-injury, knowledge of the injury, and suspicion-are needed.

Recent cases that have applied the Fox criteria have lessened its seemingly harsh results. In 2011, in Erickson v. Boston Scientific Corp., a consumer, who had four successive surgically implanted cardiac pacemakers, brought a products liability action against the manufacturers of the purportedly defective pacemakers. The California federal district court decided that the consumer knew, or had reason to know, that his pacemaker might have been defective, thereby triggering the state's two-year limitations period. The court stated, "A reasonable person in Plaintiff's position may have asked his doctor why removal and replacement [of his pacemaker] was necessary after such an unexpectedly short time." The defendants were awarded judgment.

In the 2012 case of Santangelo v. Bridgestone/Firestone, Inc., a vehicle passenger filed a product liability action against a tire manufacturer to recover for personal injuries suffered from an accident that occurred due to tread separation of a tire. The appellate court decided that the passenger's attorney's knowledge of facts demonstrating that he had reason to suspect that the tire was defective had to be imputed to the passenger. Judgment for the manufacturer was, therefore, upheld.

Conclusion

If you are a manufacturer faced with a personal injury products liability suit arising out of an allegedly defective product, you should immediately contact an experienced products liability attorney, who will investigate your case and determine whether, because of knowledge or suspicion, the statute of limitations bars the suit.