Winslow v. Lewis-Shepard, Inc.

Decision Date08 August 1989
Docket NumberLEWIS-SHEPAR,No. 13679,INC,13679
Citation562 A.2d 517,212 Conn. 462
Parties, 58 USLW 2148, Prod.Liab.Rep. (CCH) P 12,246 Jeffrey S. WINSLOW v., et al.
CourtConnecticut Supreme Court

Robert B. Yules, with whom, on the brief, was Thomas H. Winslow, Hartford, for appellant (plaintiff).

Christopher M. Vossler, for appellees (named defendant et al.).

Before PETERS, C.J., and SHEA, CALLAHAN, GLASS and HULL, JJ.

HULL, Associate Justice.

The sole issue on this appeal is whether our products liability statute, General Statutes § 52-572n(a), provides the exclusive remedy for a claim falling within its scope, thereby denying a claimant the option of bringing common law causes of action for the same claim. The trial court so held, and we find no error.

The procedural history of this appeal is undisputed. The plaintiff, Jeffrey S. Winslow, brought a multiple count complaint against the defendants Lewis-Shepard, Inc., Lewis-Boyle, Inc., Hyster Corporation and Esco Corporation, 1 seeking a recovery for personal injuries that he sustained while operating an allegedly defective "order picker" 2 at his place of employment. The plaintiff's complaint does not assert a statutory products liability claim pursuant to General Statutes § 52-572m et seq. Rather, the plaintiff pled the following common law causes of action against the defendants: first count, negligent design and manufacture of the order picker; third count, strict tort liability (i.e., that the defendants sold the order picker in a defective and unreasonably dangerous condition); fourth count, breach of express warranty of merchantability; and fifth count, breach of implied warranties of merchantability and fitness. 3 The defendants filed a motion to strike these counts of the plaintiff's complaint, claiming that Connecticut's product liability statute, General Statutes § 52-572n(a), 4 provides the exclusive remedy for the plaintiff's product liability claim, thus rendering legally insufficient the common law theories asserted by the plaintiff. The plaintiff filed an objection to the motion to strike, claiming that § 52-572n(a) does not provide the exclusive remedy for products liability claims and that the language of that statute preserves a claimant's right to plead traditional common law theories for injuries caused by an allegedly defective product. By an order dated November 3, 1988, the trial court granted the defendants' motion to strike the first, third, fourth and fifth counts of the plaintiff's complaint. Pursuant to the plaintiff's motion for judgment dated November 17, 1988, judgment on the motion to strike was rendered in favor of the defendants on November 28, 1988. From this judgment the plaintiff has appealed.

Section 52-572n(a) provides: "A product liability claim as provided in sections 52-240a, 52-240b, 52-572m to 52-572r, inclusive, and 52-577a may be asserted and shall be in lieu of all other claims against product sellers, including actions of negligence, strict liability and warranty, for harm caused by a product." On appeal, the plaintiff renews his argument that § 52-572n(a) does not provide an exclusive remedy for products liability claims and that he is thereby permitted to plead common law theories of products liability. Specifically, the plaintiff claims that the inclusion in the statute of the "discretionary" language that "[a] product liability claim ... may be asserted," (emphasis added) rather than the mandatory phrase "shall be asserted," clearly indicates that the legislature intended to grant a claimant the option of pursuing a products liability claim under either the statute or traditional common law theories. In response, the defendants argue: (1) the question of whether § 52-572n(a) provides an exclusive remedy for claims falling within its scope has already been answered in the affirmative by this court in the case of Daily v. New Britain Machine Co., 200 Conn. 562, 512 A.2d 893 (1986); (2) the plain language of § 52-572n(a) provides that it is an exclusive remedy; and (3) that if § 52-572n(a) is construed to be ambiguous on this point, its legislative history clearly demonstrates that it was intended to be an exclusive remedy.

We address first the defendants' claim that the recent case of Daily v. New Britain Machine Co., supra, is dispositive of the issue on this appeal. In Daily, the plaintiffs brought a statutory products liability action to recover for injuries resulting from the use of a molding machine more than ten years after its vendor had parted with possession and control thereof. The trial court granted the defendant vendor's motion for summary judgment on the ground that the action was barred by General Statutes § 52-577a, 5 the Connecticut products liability statute of limitations, since the defendant had parted with possession and control of the molding machine more than ten years before the plaintiffs had filed their action. On appeal, the plaintiffs in Daily claimed, inter alia, that their complaint alleged common law claims of products liability. Since § 52-577a acts to bar only untimely statutory products liability claims (brought pursuant to General Statutes § 52-572m et seq.), the plaintiffs argued that the trial court had erred in relying on § 52-577a to bar the common law products liability causes of action allegedly contained in their complaint.

The success of the plaintiffs' argument in Daily depended on their ability to prove two things: first, that their complaint did indeed allege common law theories of products liability; and second, that a statutory products liability cause of action pursuant to § 52-572n(a) was not their exclusive remedy, thereby permitting common law causes of action to be pled. With regard to the plaintiffs' assertion that their complaint alleged common law theories of product liability, we stated: "Our review of the substitute complaint dated November 23, 1982, discloses that the plaintiffs alleged only violations of statutory enactments.... By choice, the plaintiffs limited their complaint to statutory claims. To attempt to read into this complaint common law claims is to stretch the imagination." Id. at 570-71, 512 A.2d 893. Clearly, this determination by the Daily court was dispositive of the plaintiffs' claim, making it unnecessary for us to address the next issue of whether, if the plaintiffs' complaint had alleged common law claims of products liability, those claims would be barred because § 52-572n(a) provided an exclusive remedy. Nevertheless, we chose to comment upon that issue, stating that "the products liability statute [§ 52-572n(a) ] provides an exclusive remedy and the plaintiffs cannot bring a common law cause of action for a claim within the scope of the statute." Id., at 571, 512 A.2d 893. Because, however, this statement by the Daily court was not essential to the resolution of the particular issue presented, it is dictum and not fully authoritative. Rather than rely on this dictum, we prefer to engage in an independent statutory analysis of § 52-572n(a) 6 in order to decide the important issue in this case.

Well established principles of statutory construction govern our analysis of § 52-572n(a). Our objective is to construe the language of the section so as to give effect to the apparent intent of the legislature. Rhodes v. Hartford, 201 Conn. 89 93, 513 A.2d 124 (1986); State v. Kozlowski, 199 Conn. 667, 673, 509 A.2d 20 (1986); 2A J. Sutherland, Statutory Construction (4th Ed. Sands 1984) § 45.05. "If the language of a statute is plain and unambiguous, we need not look beyond the statute because we assume that the language expresses the intention of the legislature. Rhodes v. Hartford, supra; Johnson v. Manson, 196 Conn. 309, 316, 493 A.2d 846 (1985), cert. denied, 474 U.S. 1063, 106 S.Ct. 813, 88 L.Ed.2d 787 (1986); Mazur v. Blum, 184 Conn. 116, 118-19, 441 A.2d 65 (1981). When we are faced with ambiguity in a statute, however, we turn for interpretive guidance to its legislative history, the circumstances surrounding its enactment, and the purpose the statute is to serve. Rhodes v. Hartford, supra; State v. Kozlowski, supra; State v. Ellis, 197 Conn. 436, 445, 497 A.2d 974 (1985)." State v. Blasko, 202 Conn. 541, 553, 522 A.2d 753 (1987).

Both parties contend that the plain language of § 52-572n(a) supports their respective positions. The plaintiff emphasizes the statutory language that "[a] product liability claim ... may be asserted" as expressing an intent on the part of the legislature to grant a claimant the choice of pursuing a products liability claim under the statute but not mandating such a course of action, thereby implicitly preserving a claimant's right to bring such an action under traditional common law theories. The defendants, on the other hand, point to the language in the statute stating that "[a] product liability claim ... shall be in lieu of all other claims" as clearly indicating the legislature's intent to make the statute the exclusive remedy for products liability actions falling within its scope. After careful scrutiny of the language of § 52-572n(a), we conclude that the express language of the statute is reasonably susceptible to either interpretation proffered by the parties. Faced with this ambiguity, we must look beyond the words of the statute to determine the intent of the legislature. State v. Blasko, supra at 554, 522 A.2d 753; State v. Kozlowski, supra, 199 Conn. at 674, 509 A.2d 20; see 2A J. Sutherland, supra, § 46.07, p. 110. Accordingly, we turn to the legislative history of our products liability act.

The comments of the sponsors of the act are enlightening, to an extraordinary degree, on the question of whether it was intended to be the exclusive remedy for those persons injured by an allegedly defective product. "[T]he bill is based upon a Department of Commerce draft in the area of product liability.... At the present time as you know, if you...

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