Kambury v. DaimlerChrysler Corp.

Decision Date04 April 2001
Citation173 Or. App. 372,21 P.3d 1089
CourtOregon Court of Appeals
PartiesDennis KAMBURY, Personal Representative of the ESTATE of Amy Beth KAMBURY, Appellant, v. DAIMLERCHRYSLER CORPORATION, a Delaware corporation; and Northwest Jeep Eagle, Inc., an Oregon corporation, Respondents, and DaimlerChrysler Motors Corporation; Chrysler Corporation; Chrysler Motors Corporation and DaimlerChrysler AG, Defendants.

Robert K. Udziela, Portland, argued the cause for appellant. With him on the briefs was Lawrence Baron, PC.

Peter R. Chamberlain and John H. Holmes, Portland, argued the cause for respondents. On the brief was Roger K. Stroup, Portland, and Bodyfelt Mount Stroup & Chamberlain.

Before EDMONDS, Presiding Judge, and ARMSTRONG1 and KISTLER, Judges.

KISTLER, J.

Plaintiff filed this wrongful death action on behalf of his wife's estate more than two years but less than three years after she died. Because her death was caused by an allegedly defective product, the trial court ruled that the two-year statute of limitations for product liability actions rather than the three-year statute of limitations for wrongful death actions applied. It accordingly granted defendants' summary judgment motions. We reverse and remand.

Amy Kambury died on December 6, 1995, after the airbag in her car deployed and struck her in the abdomen causing her to suffer irreversible blood loss. On December 1, 1998, plaintiff filed a wrongful death action against defendants alleging claims for product liability, negligence, and breach of warranty. Defendants moved for summary judgment, arguing that the two-year statute of limitations for product liability claims barred plaintiff's action. See ORS 30.905(2). Plaintiff responded that his action was timely because the three-year statute of limitations for wrongful death actions applied. See ORS 30.020(1). The trial court ruled that the two-year statute of limitations applied and granted defendants' summary judgment motions.

Plaintiff filed an amended complaint alleging claims for product liability, negligence, breach of warranty, negligent misrepresentation, and intentional misrepresentation.2 Defendants again moved for summary judgment, arguing that the two-year statute of limitations applied because plaintiff's claims, regardless of how they were pled, were in effect product liability claims. The trial court agreed and held that plaintiff's action was "untimely under the two-year statute of limitations in ORS 30.905(2)." The court granted defendants' motions for summary judgment and entered judgment accordingly.

On appeal, the parties focus on the question whether the two-year product liability statute of limitations or the three-year wrongful death statute of limitations applies when a defective product causes a person's death. Plaintiff argues that we have already held that the three-year statute for wrongful death actions applies and that we should adhere to our holding. Defendants disagree that our decision goes that far but invite us to reconsider which statute of limitations applies in light of PGE v. Bureau of Labor and Industries, 317 Or. 606, 859 P.2d 1143 (1993). In defendants' view, the plain language of the product liability statute makes clear that the two-year limitations period for defective products applies.

We begin with the question whether our cases resolve this issue. Three cases are relevant. The first, Eldridge v. Eastmoreland General Hospital, 307 Or. 500, 769 P.2d 775 (1989), was not a product liability case. Rather, Eldridge was a wrongful death action for medical malpractice. The question in Eldridge was whether the discovery rule applied to the three-year statute of limitations for wrongful death actions. See id. at 502-03, 769 P.2d 775. The court held that it did not. Id. at 504-05, 769 P.2d 775. The court explained that a wrongful death action must be brought within three years after the occurrence of the injury causing the death of the decedent regardless of when the cause of the injury is or should have been discovered. Id.3

One year after the court decided Eldridge, we decided Korbut v. Eastman Kodak Co., 100 Or.App. 649, 787 P.2d 896, rev. den. 310 Or. 70, 792 P.2d 104 (1990). Our opinion in Korbut states, in its entirety:

"This is a wrongful death action based on defective product allegations. The death occurred in 1982. The action was brought in 1988. The trial court granted defendants a summary judgment on the basis of Eldridge v. Eastmoreland General Hospital, 307 Or. 500, 769 P.2d 775 (1989). We are bound by that decision." Id. at 650, 787 P.2d 896. Our opinion in Korbut can be read in one of two ways. We could have concluded that the three-year statute of limitations for wrongful death actions applies when the decedent's death is caused by an allegedly defective product and that, under Eldridge, that statute of limitations was not subject to any discovery rule. That was the reasoning that the trial court employed in Korbut, and the defendant in Korbut urged us, as its initial line of defense, to adopt the same reasoning.4 That is what we appear to have done. We first described the trial court's ruling and then stated that we were bound by Eldridge. We would, however, have been "bound" by Eldridge only if the holding in that case squarely controlled the outcome in Korbut.

Alternatively, we could have concluded, as the dissent reasons, that the plaintiff's action was untimely under either statute of limitations because neither the wrongful death statutes nor the products liability statute is subject to a discovery rule. We previously had held, however, that a person is not "injured" within the meaning of the products liability statute until he or she either discovers or reasonably should have discovered that the defendant's defective product caused his or her injury. Dortch v. A.H. Robins Co., Inc., 59 Or.App. 310, 319, 650 P.2d 1046 (1982). We could not have applied the two-year products liability statute of limitations to the plaintiff's claim in Korbut and affirmed the trial court's judgment without overruling Dortch or limiting its reasoning to injuries that do not result in death.5 Our reasoning in Korbut, however briefly stated, does not suggest that we took that route. Although our opinion in Korbut can be read in one of two ways, we conclude that the former reading is the more plausible one: Korbut stands for the proposition that the three-year statute of limitations for wrongful death actions applies even when the death results from an allegedly defective product.

The issue of which statute of limitations applies has been squarely presented to the Oregon Supreme Court, albeit in somewhat of an unusual procedural posture. The federal district court certified that question to the court. See Western Helicopter Services v. Rogerson Aircraft, 311 Or. 361, 373, 811 P.2d 627 (1991)

(setting out the certified questions). The first certified question asked whether "the statute of limitations for wrongful death claims * * * or the statute of limitations for product liability actions * * * appl[ies] to a wrongful death claim based on the theory of product liability[.]" Id. The second certified question asked whether, if the two-year statute of limitations for product liability actions applied, that statute of limitations is subject to the discovery rule. Id.

The Supreme Court declined to accept certification because our opinion in Korbut answered the first question and mooted the second. Western Helicopter, 311 Or. at 374, 811 P.2d 627. The court reasoned that our opinion in Korbut was "controlling precedent" on the first question.6 Id. at 373-74, 811 P.2d 627. It recognized that there was "contrary precedent from the Ninth Circuit" holding that the two-year product liability statute of limitations applied to wrongful death actions based on defective product claims. Id. at 374, 811 P.2d 627.7 The court explained, however, that, as between our and the Ninth Circuit's interpretation of Oregon law, our interpretation was controlling. Id. The court thus understood that our opinion in Korbut resolved the question whether the two- or the three-year statute of limitations applied to wrongful death actions based on a product liability claim and that we had held that the three-year statute of limitations for wrongful death actions applies.

Were there any doubt about the court's understanding of Korbut, the court's answer to the second question resolves it. The court declined to accept certification of the second question—whether the discovery rule applies to the two-year statute of limitations for product liability actions—because there was no need to answer that question in light of its answer to the first question; that is, because the court found that, under our precedent, the three-year statute of limitations applied, there was no need to decide whether the two-year product liability statute of limitations did not start running until the plaintiff either knew or should have known that the defective product caused the death of the decedent. Western Helicopter, 311 Or. at 374, 811 P.2d 627. After the Oregon Supreme Court declined to accept certification in Western Helicopter, the United States District Court applied the three-year statute of limitations to the plaintiff's wrongful death action in the underlying federal case. Western Helicopter Services v. Rogerson Aircraft, 765 F.Supp. 1041, 1044 (D.Or.1991).

Three propositions can be drawn from those cases. First, we have applied the three-year statute of limitations to wrongful death actions that are based on defective product claims. Korbut, 100 Or.App. at 650,787 P.2d 896. Second, although the Supreme Court has not resolved whether the two- or three-year statute of limitations applies, it has recognized that we have done so and that our opinion in Korbut is "controlling precedent" on the issue. Western Helicopter Services, 311...

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