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Thornton v. Mono Manufacturing Co.

OPINION FILED AUGUST 20, 1981.

SUSAN THORNTON, MOTHER AND NEXT FRIEND OF SHAWN THORNTON, A MINOR, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,

v.

MONO MANUFACTURING COMPANY ET AL., DEFENDANTS-APPELLEES. — (MONO MANUFACTURING COMPANY, DEFENDANT AND THIRD-PARTY PLAINTIFF,

v.

PETER MATEIKA, THIRD-PARTY DEFENDANT.)



APPEAL from the Circuit Court of Winnebago County; the Hon. PHILIP G. REINHARD, Judge, presiding.

MR. JUSTICE LINDBERG DELIVERED THE OPINION OF THE COURT:

This action was commenced in the Circuit Court of Winnebago County by Susan Thornton for the benefit of her minor son, Shawn Thornton (hereafter plaintiff), to recover damages for injuries he sustained on a rotary cutter machine. At issue is the constitutionality of the Illinois products liability statute of limitation. Ill. Rev. Stat. 1979, ch. 83, par. 22.2.

The facts in this case are undisputed. On July 26, 1979, the plaintiff, a minor eight years of age, stepped onto a rotary cutter owned by his grandfather. The rotary cutter was a piece of farm machinery purchased from defendant Tractor Supply Company on July 14, 1969. While standing on the machine near the point where the shaft enters the gear box, plaintiff's left arm became caught in the shaft and was dismembered.

Plaintiff filed a two-count complaint alleging negligence and strict liability in tort against the purported manufacturer and retailer of the machine. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the manufacturer, Mono Manufacturing Company, on both counts of the complaint, and in favor of the retailer, Tractor Supply Company, for strict liability in tort alone. From these judgments, plaintiff appeals.

After briefing and oral argument in this court, plaintiff petitioned for leave to dismiss the appeal. As grounds for his petition, plaintiff admitted that he had sued the wrong manufacturer in this suit; that he had subsequently commenced another action in the Federal District Court for the Northern District of Illinois against what he believed was the true manufacturer of the machine; and that the issues litigated among the parties to the lawsuit before this court were therefore moot. We granted the petition to dismiss the appeal with respect to Mono Manufacturing Company. However, because the retailer, Tractor Supply Company (hereafter Tractor), had also been named as a defendant in the Federal suit, the issues argued in this case between Tractor and the plaintiff are still very much alive. As to defendant Tractor, we therefore denied plaintiff's petition to dismiss the appeal. Ill. Rev. Stat. 1979, ch. 110A, par. 301.

This lawsuit was filed on December 28, 1979. The trial court found that the rotary cutter was sold to the initial user-consumer more than 10 years before the filing of the complaint. By the terms of the products liability statute of limitation (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1979, ch. 83, par. 22.2(b)), no products liability action based upon a theory of strict liability in tort shall be commenced after 10 years from the date of sale to its initial user. The trial court therefore ruled that the plaintiff's action for strict liability in tort was barred.

Plaintiff contends that the statute is unconstitutional, either on its face or as applied to him. First, he argues that it contravenes the due process clause of article I, section 2 of the Illinois Constitution of 1970, which provides:

"No person shall be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law nor be denied the equal protection of the laws."

• 1 Whether a statute violates the due process clause depends upon whether it bears a reasonable relationship to a constitutionally permissible purpose. (Pozner v. Mauck (1978), 73 Ill.2d 250, 383 N.E.2d 203.) Both parties suggest that the legislative purpose sought by enactment of the products liability statute of limitation was to dampen the rapid escalation of insurance rates which has accompanied the widened exposure to lawsuits of those in the chain of manufacture and distribution of products since the advent of products liability actions based on strict liability in tort. (See Minichello & Orpett, Beat the Clock: The New Product Liability Statute of Limitations in Illinois, 67 Ill. B.J. 414 (1979).) Other reasons advanced by defendant Tractor for the passage of this statute include the economic burden ultimately imposed on the consumer by such suits; the difficulties in proof and recordkeeping which such suits impose; court congestion; and the fundamental unfairness involved in imposing current legal and technical standards on products which were introduced into the stream of commerce more than 10 years prior to the commencement of a given suit.

Plaintiff has not contended that these purposes are constitutionally impermissible. Rather, he argues that the statute is arbitrary because it imposes a limitation only with respect to actions grounded upon strict liability in tort, but not those based upon negligence or warranty.

• 2 However, the recent evolution of the doctrine of strict liability in tort reflected in Illinois case law testifies to the independence which this cause of action has won from the traditional constraints of negligence and warranty. (See, e.g., Suvada v. White Motor Co. (1965), 32 Ill.2d 612, 210 N.E.2d 182; Peterson v. Lou Bachrodt Chevrolet Co. (1975), 61 Ill.2d 17, 329 N.E.2d 785, appeal after remand (1978), 61 Ill. App.3d 898, 378 N.E.2d 618, aff'd & rem. (1979), 76 Ill.2d 353, 392 N.E.2d 1; Liberty Mutual Insurance Co. v. Williams Machine & Tool Co. (1975), 62 Ill.2d 77, 338 N.E.2d 857; Crowe v. Public Building Com. (1978), 74 Ill.2d 10, 383 N.E.2d 951.) These cases illustrate that unlike ordinary negligence, a manufacturer or distributor of a product may be held liable under a theory of strict liability in tort regardless of the degree of care exercised; and unlike warranty, recovery is limited neither by traditional rules of contractual privity, nor by the time constraints which usually accompany warranties. Based upon these different considerations, it cannot be said that the legislature served no rational purpose by imposing a limitation upon products liability actions grounded on strict liability in tort which is absent from warranty and negligence. Whether this particular statute is the best means to achieve the desired goal of the legislature is not, of course, a proper subject of judicial inquiry. (Bridgewater v. Hotz (1972), 51 Ill.2d 103, 281 N.E.2d 317.) It is enough that the statute bears a reasonable relationship to its intended purpose.

Plaintiff next argues that the statute deprives a person of due process because it has the effect of barring a cause of action before it accrues. In his case, for example, the 10-year period after the sale of the rotary cutter to the initial consumer, during which time an action would have been permitted under the statute, expired prior to the date of plaintiff's injury. His action accrued on July 26, 1979, 11 days after the 10-year period had elapsed.

Strictly speaking, however, the statute here is not a true statute of limitation, which governs the time within which lawsuits may be commenced after a cause of action has accrued. (Skinner v. Anderson (1967), 38 Ill.2d 455, 458, 231 N.E.2d 588, 590.) Rather than being directed at the remedy, this statute extinguishes the right of action itself before it arises. The significance of this distinction was explained by the Supreme Court of New Jersey in Rosenberg v. Town of North Bergen (1972), 61 N.J. 190, 293 A.2d 662. There, the plaintiff challenged the constitutionality of a 10-year statutory limitation upon actions arising from deficiency in the design, planning, supervision or construction of improvement to real property. Plaintiff sought to recover for personal injuries allegedly sustained as a result of negligence in the repavement of a public street 34 years prior to the date of her injuries. Rejecting plaintiff's claim that the statute deprived her of due process in that it barred her cause of action before it accrued, the court stated:

"This formulation suggests a misconception of the effect of the statute. It does not bar a cause of action; its effect, rather, is to prevent what might otherwise be a cause of action, from ever arising. Thus injury occurring more than ten years after the negligent act allegedly responsible for the harm, forms no basis for recovery. The injured party literally has no cause of action. The harm that has been done is damnum absque injuria — a wrong for which the law affords no redress. The function of the statute is thus rather to define substantive rights than to alter or modify a remedy. The Legislature is ...


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