Kennedy v. Cumberland Engineering Co., Inc., 82-95-A

Citation471 A.2d 195
Decision Date19 January 1984
Docket NumberNo. 82-95-A,82-95-A
PartiesCharles KENNEDY v. CUMBERLAND ENGINEERING COMPANY, INC. ppeal.
CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Rhode Island

Richard A. Boren, Ralph Stokes, Abedon, Michaelson, Stanzler, Biener, Skolnik & Lipsey, Providence, for plaintiff.

Mark S. Mandell, Mandell, Aisenberg, Goodman & Schwartz, Ltd. and Leonard Decof, John S. Foley, Decof & Grimm, Providence, amicus curiae.

Michael G. Sarli, Robert W. Lovegreen, Hinckley & Allen, Providence, for defendant.

Dennis J. Roberts II, Atty. Gen., Faith A. LaSalle, Sp. Asst. Atty. Gen., intervenor.

OPINION

SHEA, Justice.

The plaintiff appeals from the order for summary judgment entered against him in the Superior Court. The appeal raises the issue of the validity of G.L.1956 (1969 Reenactment) § 9-1-13(b), as amended by P.L.1978, ch. 299, § 2, under the Federal and State Constitutions. We reverse the order for summary judgment and remand the case to the Superior Court for further proceedings.

The plaintiff, Charles Kennedy, filed a complaint in Superior Court on October 6, 1981, alleging that on or about October 16, 1978, three fingers on his right hand were amputated and a fourth finger fractured while he was using a machine manufactured by defendant, Cumberland Engineering. The machine was first sold for use by defendant in November 1969, and later was obtained by Service Color Corporation, plaintiff's employer.

In 1978 the General Assembly amended § 9-1-13 to require that claims for recovery of damages involving injury-causing products must be commenced "within ten (10) years after the date the product was first purchased for use or consumption." Section 9-1-13(b) reads:

"Notwithstanding the provisions of subsection (a) of this section, an action for the recovery of damages for personal injury, death or damage to real or personal property, including any action based upon implied warranties arising out of an alleged design, inspection, listing or manufacturing defect, or any other alleged defect of whatsoever kind or nature in a product, or arising out of any alleged failure to warn regarding a product, or arising out of any alleged failure to properly instruct in the use of a product, shall be commenced within ten (10) years after the date the product was first purchased for use or consumption."

The defendant filed a motion for summary judgment and an affidavit from Stanley T. Gotham, a vice president of Cumberland Engineering, claiming that § 9-1-13(b) barred the action because plaintiff's complaint was filed more than ten years after the machine was first purchased. The Attorney General intervened in support of the motion for summary judgment because the constitutionality of a state statute was called into question by plaintiff in his objection to the motion. The trial judge granted the motion, and plaintiff appealed, alleging violations of the equal-protection and due-process guarantees of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution and access to the courts protected by art. I, sec. 5, of the Rhode Island Constitution. Two amicus curiae briefs were filed in support of plaintiff's appeal.

I

APPLICABILITY OF ARTICLE I, SECTION 5, OF THE RHODE ISLAND CONSTITUTION

Article I, sec. 5, of the Rhode Island Constitution states:

§ 5. Remedies for wrongs--Right to justice.--Every person within this state ought to find a certain remedy, by having recourse to the laws, for all injuries or wrongs which he may receive in his person, property, or character. He ought to obtain right and justice freely and without purchase, completely and without denial; promptly and without delay; comformably to the laws."

The defendant claims that this section is limited to a prohibition of the purchase and sale of justice. This interpretation, however, is too narrow and ignores the clear command contained in the first sentence.

Many of the cases in which this court has addressed art. I, sec. 5, of our constitution have dealt solely with the provision concerning the "purchase" of justice. See Jones v. Aciz, 109 R.I. 612, 289 A.2d 44 (1972), appeal dismissed, 409 U.S. 1094, 93 S.Ct. 704, 34 L.Ed.2d 678 (1972); Lewis v. Smith, 21 R.I. 324, 43 A. 542 (1899); Perce v. Hallett, 13 R.I. 363 (1881); Spalding v. Bainbridge, 12 R.I. 244 (1879); Conley v Other cases of this court that have dealt with art. I, sec. 5, of the Rhode Island Constitution clearly show an intent to give broader, independent meaning and application to the first sentence. In the recent case of Lemoine v. Martineau, 115 R.I. 233, 342 A.2d 616 (1975), this court held that a statute excusing legislators from all court appearances while the Legislature is in session "flies in the face of the constitutional command found in art. I, § 5." (Emphasis added.) Id. at 240, 342 A.2d at 621. Cf. Martin v. Hammond, 89 R.I. 98, 151 A.2d 114 (1959) (the court analyzed, under R.I. Const. art. I, sec. 5, the trial justice's discretion in considering a motion for a continuance); Molloy v. Collins, 66 R.I. 251, 18 A.2d 639 (1941) (although rejecting the plaintiff's contention, the court recognized the application of the section to personal injuries). These cases are factually different from the case before us. However, they clearly point to a less-restrictive reading of the section than that urged by defendant. To hold otherwise would require that we ignore the entire first sentence of art. I, sec. 5. A basic premise of constitutional interpretation is that every clause must be given its due force, meaning and effect and that no word or section must be assumed to have been unnecessarily used or needlessly added. Wright v. United States, 302 U.S. 583, 588, 58 S.Ct. 395, 397, 82 L.Ed. 439, 442 (1938); Williams v. United States, 289 U.S. 553, 572-73, 53 S.Ct. 751, 757, 77 L.Ed. 1372, 1380 (1933); Holmes v. Jennison, 14 Pet. 540, 570-71, 10 L.Ed. 579 (1840).

Woonsocket Institution for Savings, 11 R.I. 147 (1875); Hudson v. Geary, 4 R.I. 485 (1857); Littlefield v. Peckham, 1 R.I. 500 (1851). This does not, however, limit the application of art. I, sec. 5, to the "purchase" issue only. In each of the cases, the second sentence of section 5 was the only portion of article I dealt with because the only issue involved related to the cost or fee applied to one of the litigants. None of these cases gives any indication that this was the sole purpose of this constitutional provision.

We therefore conclude that an analysis of the present issue under R.I. Const. art. I, sec. 5, is appropriate.

II ANALYSIS

Clearly, art. I, sec. 5, of the Rhode Island Constitution should not be interpreted to bar the Legislature from enacting any laws that may limit a party from bringing a claim in our courts. There are instances in which the Legislature permissibly placed reasonable limits or burdens on the parties' right to have their claims adjudicated by the courts. Statutes of limitation have been upheld as reasonable legislative determination of when to cut off a plaintiff's right to bring an existing claim. Johnson v. Railway Express Agency, Inc., 421 U.S. 454, 463-64, 95 S.Ct. 1716, 1722, 44 L.Ed.2d 295, 303 (1975); Young v. Park, 116 R.I. 568, 573, 359 A.2d 697, 700 (1976). Reasonable filing fees also have been sustained as a permissible condition to a party's seeking to have his or her existing claim adjudicated. Perce v. Hallett, 13 R.I. 363 (1881).

The total denial of access to the courts for adjudication of a claim even before it arises, however, most certainly "flies in the face of the constitutional command found in art. 1, § 5," Lemoine v. Martineau, 115 R.I. at 240, 342 A.2d at 621, and to hold otherwise would be to render this constitutional protection worthless. To prohibit court access absolutely for a generally recognized claim to a class of plaintiffs merely because they were injured by a product more than ten years old not only is irrational, in our opinion, but also flies in the face of even minimal constitutional protection mandated by art. I, sec. 5. As we stated in Boucher v. Sayeed, R.I., 459 A.2d 87, 93 (1983), in which we struck down a statute that treated medical-malpractice plaintiffs differently from tort plaintiffs as a whole, "The statute constitutes special class legislation enacted solely for the benefit of specially defined defendant(s) * * *." Even where this court has upheld reasonable limitations it has stopped short of allowing absolute bars to court access (e.g. Spalding v. Bainbridge, 12 R.I. 244 (1879) (plaintiff's inability to furnish surety for costs because of poverty held not sufficient to bar his action in court)).

In Fournier v. Miriam Hospital, 93 R.I. 299, 175 A.2d 298 (1961), this court found that a statute granting immunity to charitable institutions did not violate art. 1, sec. 5. In so holding, this court noted the Legislature's power to alter the substance of the common law. This case, however, is not applicable here. The immunity statute did not deprive the plaintiffs in Fournier of their day in court because agents, servants, and employees of a hospital remained liable for their torts. Rather, the statute prevented the plaintiffs from using the common-law theory of respondeat superior to reach the defendant hospital.

This statute, on the other hand, completely denies products-liability claimants of their day in court, notwithstanding the merits of their claims and the direct liability of the potential defendants. Products-liability claimants injured by products more than ten years old are left with no forum in which to bring their claims. If the constitutional guarantee of right of access to the courts is to have any meaning, this statute must be struck down.

In the present case, plaintiff alleges that he was injured on October 16, 1978, by a machine approximately nine years after it was first sold for use by defendant. The applicable statute of limitations (three years for personal injuries, § 9-1-14) gave defendant until October 16, 1981, to file his...

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