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From Products Liability Law Daily, June 1, 2015

Estate failed to use due diligence in identifying debarker machine maker; claims time-barred

By Pamela C. Maloney, J.D.

The substitution of the company that had manufactured a debarker machine for a fictitiously named defendant, which was made after the expiration of applicable statute of limitations period, did not “relate back” to the filing of the original complaint, the Alabama Supreme Court ruled, granting the manufacturer’s petition for a writ of mandamus directing the trial court to enter summary judgment in favor of the manufacturer. According to the Alabama high court, the estate of a worker who died from injuries in an accident involving the allegedly defective machine failed to exercise due diligence in ascertaining the identity of the manufacturer (Ex parte Nicholson Manufacturing Ltd., May 29, 2015, Shaw, G.).

Background. The worker, Casimiro Deleon Ixcoy, who was employed at a sawmill, died from injuries he received when a 160-pound log fell from an overhead conveyor and struck him in the head as he was walking through the debarking area of the mill. His estate filed a wrongful death claim against several named and fictitiously named defendants, alleging that the accident was a result of negligent, wanton, willful and intentional conduct. The complaint also sought damages based on a products-liability theory, specifically that the debarker machine, which was used to remove bark from the logs, was defectively designed. Two days after the expiration of the two-year statutory limitations period, the estate filed an amendment to the original complaint seeking to substitute Nicholson Manufacturing Ltd. as the manufacturer of the debarker. Nicholson raised the statute of limitations as an affirmative defense and moved for summary judgment on the ground that its substitution as a defendant did not “relate back” to the original filing date. The trial court denied the motion and Nicholson petitioned the state supreme court for a writ of mandamus.

Relation back principle. The court clarified that, under Alabama law, the relation back principle applied only when the plaintiff was ignorant of the name of an opposing party and had exercised due diligence in attempting to identify such a defendant both before and after the filing of the complaint.

The evidence produced by the manufacturer indicated that the estate had access to information that would have led to the discovery of its identity before the limitations period had expired. This evidence included photographs in the incident report that clearly showed the name of the manufacturer on a label on the machine. In addition, a labor department decision and order identified the manufacturer of the machine. Although the estate had not been in possession of the incident report at the time the complaint was filed, the court explained that simply lacking the information which disclosed an unidentified defendant did not excuse a failure to exercise due diligence. The incident report had been available to the public for nearly 15 months before the expiration of the limitations period, and, although unsigned, the labor department decision and order had been available nearly two months before the statute of limitations expired. Both these documents were products of standard investigation into a work-site-related death and due diligence should have led the estate to seek out and consult readily and publicly available documents regarding a standard investigation of an accident which formed the basis of the claim, the court admonished.

The court also pointed out that in a products liability action, a party could not claim ignorance of the identity of the manufacturer of a product that was the very subject of the lawsuit “when a simple inspection would have revealed the name of the manufacturer, which [was] clearly stated on the allegedly defective product itself.” The court refused to give credence to the estate’s protestation that it was denied access to the accident site, reminding the estate that it could have requested a court-ordered inspection of the equipment.

Finding that the worker’s estate failed to act with due diligence in discovering the identity of the fictitiously-named defendant, the trial court had no discretion other than to grant the motion for summary judgment on the statute-of-limitations ground.

The case is No. 1130411.

Companies: Nicholson Manufacturing Ltd.

MainStory: TopStory SofLReposeNews IndustrialCommercialEquipNews AlabamaNews

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