Hoeflich v. William S. Merrell Company

Citation288 F. Supp. 659
Decision Date28 August 1968
Docket NumberCiv. A. No. 40740.
PartiesSherman HOEFLICH v. WILLIAM S. MERRELL COMPANY, a Division of Richardson-Merrell, Inc. and Richardson-Merrell, Inc.
CourtU.S. District Court — Eastern District of Pennsylvania

Richter, Lord, Toll, Cavanaugh, McCarthy & Raynes, Gary Leedes, Philadelphia, Pa., for plaintiff.

Pepper, Hamilton & Scheetz, Aaron D. Blumberg, Philadelphia, Pa., for defendants.

OPINION AND ORDER

TROUTMAN, District Judge.

This is an action for personal injuries allegedly resulting from the ingestion of a prescription drug manufactured by defendants and known as MER/29. The personal injuries attributed to the drug by the plaintiff are skin eruptions and injuries to his eyes and nervous system. Presently before the Court for disposition is the motion of the defendants filed pursuant to Rule 56 of the F.R.Civ.P. for summary judgment on the ground that plaintiff's claim is barred by the applicable statutes of limitations. Since this Court's jurisdiction over this action is based upon diversity of citizenship the disposition of defendants' motion is controlled by Pennsylvania law. Guaranty Trust Co. v. York, 326 U.S. 99, 65 S.Ct. 1464, 89 L.Ed. 2079 (1945).

The legal theories upon which plaintiff is proceeding in this action are breach of warranty, negligence and strict liability. The applicable Pennsylvania statute of limitations for breach of warranty is the Act of October 2, 1959, P.L. 1023, 12A P.S. § 2-725 which provides that:

"(1) An action for breach of any contract for sale must be commenced within four years after the cause of action has accrued. * * * (2) A cause of action accrues when the breach occurs, regardless of the aggrieved party's lack of knowledge of the breach. A breach of warranty occurs when tender of delivery is made. * * *"

The applicable Pennsylvania statute of limitations for actions based upon negligence and strict liability is the Act of June 24, 1895, P.L. 236, 12 P.S. § 34 which provides that an action "* * * must be brought within two years from the time when the injury was done and not afterwards; * * *".

Just as we must follow Pennsylvania law in determining what statute applies, so also must we apply the Pennsylvania case law in determining when the statute begins to run. A literal reading of the applicable statutes of limitations would indicate that the statute begins to run "when tender of delivery is made" as to breach of warranty claims and "when the injury was done" as to negligence and strict liability claims. However, when these statutes are "read in the light of reason and common sense", as they must be, a literal interpretation has not been afforded to them in every instance by the Pennsylvania courts. Ayers v. Morgan, 397 Pa. 282, 284, 154 A.2d 788 (1959).

As to the warranty claim, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has held that the four year statute set forth in 12A P.S. § 2-725 is applicable to personal injury actions based upon breach of warranty. Gardiner v. Philadelphia Gas Works, 413 Pa. 415, 197 A.2d 612 (1964). It has also been held by the same Court that the statute begins to run when tender of delivery is made regardless of the aggrieved party's lack of knowledge of the breach and regardless of the time of the accident directly giving rise to the damages claimed. Rufo v. Bastian-Blessing Company, 417 Pa. 107, 207 A.2d 823 (1965).

As to the negligence and strict liability claims, an analysis of the Pennsylvania cases has led this Court, in Carney v. Barnett, 278 F.Supp. 572 (E.D.Pa.1967), to adopt the rule at page 575 that "* * the statute begins to run as of the date of injury unless, in the exercise of reasonable diligence, the plaintiff could not have ascertained defendant's culpability within the statutory period. When that culpability could not reasonably have been so ascertained, the statute begins to run as of the date it could reasonably have been discovered."1

As to both the warranty and the negligence and strict liability claims, it is the duty of one asserting a cause of action against another to use all reasonable diligence to properly inform himself of the facts and circumstances upon which the right of recovery is based and to institute the suit within the prescribed statutory period. "* * * If, however, through fraud or concealment, the defendant causes the plaintiff to relax his vigilance or deviate from his right of inquiry, the defendant is estopped from invoking the bar of the limitation of the action." Schaffer v. Larzelere, 410 Pa. 402, 405, 189 A.2d 267, 269 (1963).

From the plaintiff's deposition taken by counsel for defendants to support this summary judgment motion, the following chronology appears: Plaintiff was prescribed MER/29 by his family physician, Dr. Fetter, in June 1960 because of his high cholesterol count. His last prescription was filled prior to September 15, 1960. At about the same time, Dr. Fetter advised him that his cholesterol count was practically normal and suggested that he finish his present prescription of MER/29 and then stop taking the drug. Between May, 1961 and May, 1964, plaintiff became aware of and was treated for various skin eruptions. For some period of time prior to May, 1964, plaintiff had become conscious of increasing difficulty with his eyes. In May, 1964, plaintiff was advised by Mr. Marchal, an ophthalmologist he consulted in France, that he had cataracts in both eyes. On July 20, 1966, plaintiff commenced this action.

The plaintiff takes the position that he was unaware of the cause of his injuries until 1966. He contends that although he questioned whether MER/29 was responsible for his injuries well before 1966, his suspicions were allayed: (1) by a letter from...

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