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Pitts v. Unarco Industries Inc.

decided: July 11, 1983.


Appeal from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Indiana, Indianapolis Division. No. 81 C 1334 -- Cale J. Holder, Judge.

Cummings, Chief Judge, Coffey, Circuit Judge, and Aspen, District Judge.*fn*

Author: Cummings

CUMMINGS, Chief Judge.

The principal issues in this appeal are whether plaintiff was denied a fair opportunity to oppose defendants' motions for summary judgment and whether an unaccrued cause of action for wrongful death is a species of property protected by the Fourteenth Amendment and abrogated by the applicability of a ten-year Indiana statute of limitations.

Some 20 months following the death of her husband from lung disease, plaintiff, a resident of Indiana, commenced this wrongful death diversity action against 16 corporations, all residents of other states. Plaintiff alleged that each did business in Indiana and was involved at some stage in the production and distribution in Indiana of products containing asbestos. Plaintiff's husband had been an asbestos insulation mechanic during the years 1950 through 1979 and she claimed that asbestos-containing products produced and distributed by defendants caused his death. She sought $1,500,000 in compensatory damages and $1,000,000 in punitive damages. Her complaint was in five counts: Count I charged negligence; Count II, strict liability; Count III, breach of implied warranties of merchantability and fitness; Count IV, conspiracy to keep from the public information about the health risks associated with asbestos; and Count V charged loss of consortium. Plaintiff abandoned Count V and on May 13, 1982, the trial court dismissed with prejudice Counts III and IV for failure to state a claim for relief, and struck from the complaint plaintiff's prayer for punitive damages. This appeal does not question these rulings. But on June 9th, the court granted final summary judgment in favor of six defendants on Counts I and II.*fn1 This appeal is from that summary judgment.


Plaintiff first claims that she did not have an adequate opportunity to oppose the remaining six defendants' summary judgment motions. On June 1st before granting those motions, the trial court ruled that the ten-year statute of limitations in Indiana's Product Liability Act, Ind. Code ยง 33-1-1.5-5 (1981),*fn2 applied to plaintiff's wrongful death suit, and that under that statute unless it appeared that each defendant had delivered an asbestos-containing product to plaintiff's husband or his employer within the ten-year period preceding the date plaintiff filed suit, her claim against that defendant would be time-barred. When the trial court issued this ruling, plaintiff had yet to present her argument about which statute of limitations should apply, and she claims that she was entitled to an opportunity to do so. But the ruling was not a judgment of any sort; it was simply a preliminary statement of the court's understanding of the law after having read several defense motions and supporting memoranda that had been filed five days earlier. Plaintiff had ample opportunity to respond to those motions and to challenge the court's understanding of the law and did so by filing a motion to reconsider on June 3 and two supporting briefs and affidavits on June 4 and 7. On June 7 and 8 the court considered the respective submissions and oral arguments of the parties in open court (plaintiff's App. 231-236; defendants' App. 89-92) before determining whether any defendants had delivered asbestos-containing products during the 10 years preceding the commencement of this suit and whether the ten-year statute of limitations barred suit. Plaintiff thus fully responded to defendants' motions -- by filing affidavits and two briefs challenging, on constitutional and choice-of-law grounds, the applicability of the ten-year statute of limitations. Plaintiff had further opportunity to pursue those arguments during the June 7 and 8 hearings.

While plaintiff's motion to reconsider mentioned Local Rule 10 of the Southern District of Indiana providing 15 days to file opposition to a summary judgment motion, she merely requested

"an opportunity to present a response to the motion for partial summary judgment and further, for an opportunity to present in open court argument and testimony regarding the issues raised in the motions for partial summary judgment filed on behalf of all defendants in this matter." (Defendants' App. 86.)

Since she was accorded that opportunity, no reversible error was committed in receiving her affidavits and briefs on June 4 and 7 and considering her submissions and oral argument on June 7 and 8 before granting the summary judgment motions on June 9.


Second, plaintiff contends that the ten-year statute of limitations was tolled by defendants' fraudulent concealment of their tortious conduct. This contention was not advanced below and therefore need not be considered for the first time on appeal. Ohio Casualty Insurance Co. v. R. J. Rynearson, 507 F.2d 573 (7th Cir. 1974). Nevertheless, plaintiff argues in her reply brief that Count IV of the complaint contains an allegation of fraudulent concealment, but that Count was dismissed with prejudice on May 13, almost four weeks before summary judgment was granted, and plaintiff has not challenged that dismissal on this appeal. In any event, the allegations in Count IV are insufficient to charge defendants with fraudulent concealment.*fn3

Rule 9(b) of the Federal Civil Rules requires that fraud be pleaded with particularity. The only particular conduct charged in Count IV is that defendants withheld information from the public. Passive silence, however, is insufficient to trigger the fraudulent concealment doctrine. Morgan v. Koch, 419 F.2d 993, 998-999 ...

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