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Portwood v. Fordmotor Co.

October 01, 1998

GWENDOLYN PORTWOOD ET AL., APPELLANTS,
v.
FORDMOTOR COMPANY, APPELLEE.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Heiple delivered the opinion of the court

Agenda 39-May 1998.

Gwendolyn Portwood and 51 other plaintiffs appeal the following holdings of the circuit and appellate courts: (1) the filing in federal court of a complaint seeking certification of a class action does not toll, or suspend, the Illinois statute of limitations during the pendency of that complaint; and (2) plaintiffs whose breach of warranty claims are dismissed by a federal court for lack of jurisdiction have six months to refile those claims in Illinois state court. We affirm both holdings.

BACKGROUND

On August 21, 1981, a group of plaintiffs filed a complaint in United States District Court for the District of Columbia seeking certification of a nationwide class action against defendant Ford Motor Company. The complaint alleged that thousands of people who purchased Ford automobiles between 1976 and 1979 sustained property damage as a result of collisions which occurred when the vehicles' transmissions shifted from "park" to "reverse" without warning. The district court initially certified a class action, but was reversed on appeal. Walsh v. Ford Motor Co., 807 F.2d 1000 (D.C. Cir. 1986). On remand, the district court found class certification unwarranted, and also dismissed the plaintiffs' individual claims for lack of federal jurisdiction. Walsh v. Ford Motor Co., 130 F.R.D. 260 (D.D.C. 1990). The district court denied reconsideration on May 14, 1990.

On May 14, 1991, plaintiffs filed this action in the circuit court of Cook County seeking certification of a nationwide class similar to that sought in Walsh. Of the named plaintiffs in the instant case, 47 were also named as plaintiffs in Walsh; the other five were unnamed members of the potential Walsh class.

The circuit court granted defendant's motion to dismiss the complaint as untimely. The court ruled that the statute of limitations for bringing suit in Illinois was not tolled, or suspended, by the filing in federal court of the Walsh class action complaint, and hence the claims of the five plaintiffs not named in Walsh were untimely. The court also ruled that under section 2-725 of the Uniform Commercial Code (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1991, ch. 26, par. 2-725), the 47 plaintiffs named in Walsh had six months to bring suit in Illinois following dismissal by the federal district court. Because the instant complaint was not filed until one year after the dismissal of Walsh, the circuit court ruled that the claims of the 47 Walsh plaintiffs were also untimely. The appellate court affirmed the circuit court's dismissal of the complaint. Portwood v. Ford Motor Co., 292 Ill. App. 3d 478 (1997). We granted leave to appeal, and now affirm.

ANALYSIS

I. Cross-Jurisdictional Class Action Tolling

In American Pipe & Construction Co. v. Utah, 414 U.S. 538, 38 L. Ed. 2d 713, 94 S. Ct. 756 (1974), the United States Supreme Court held that the filing of a class action in federal district court tolls the running of the statute of limitations for all purported members of the class who make timely motions to intervene after the court has found the suit inappropriate for class action status. American Pipe, 414 U.S. at 553, 38 L. Ed. 2d at 726, 94 S. Ct. at 766. This court subsequently adopted the American Pipe rule for class actions filed in Illinois state court. Steinberg v. Chicago Medical School, 69 Ill. 2d 320, 342 (1977). The Supreme Court then extended American Pipe by holding that the filing of a class action in federal district court tolls the statute of limitations not just for those who move to intervene in the original suit after class status is denied, but also for those who subsequently file their own individual suits in federal court. Crown, Cork & Seal Co. v. Parker, 462 U.S. 345, 350, 76 L. Ed. 2d 628, 633, 103 S. Ct. 2392, 2395-96 (1983).

The five instant plaintiffs who were not named as parties in the prior federal suit urge this court to apply the holding of Crown, Cork to toll the Illinois statute of limitations during the pendency in federal court of a complaint seeking class certification. These plaintiffs argue that when a federal court denies class certification, the tolling principle of Crown, Cork should apply to all purported class members who subsequently file individual suits, regardless of whether they file in federal or state court.

Statutes of limitation rest upon the premise that the right to be free of stale claims in time comes to prevail over the right to prosecute them. Golla v. General Motors Corp., 167 Ill. 2d 353, 369 (1995). Limitation periods are designed to encourage claimants to pursue causes of action before memories have faded, witnesses have died or disappeared, and evidence has been lost. Chase Securities Corp. v. Donaldson, 325 U.S. 304, 314, 89 L. Ed. 1628, 1635, 65 S. Ct. 1137, 1142 (1945). Statutes of limitation thus promote predictability and finality. Golla, 167 Ill. 2d at 370.

In American Pipe, the United States Supreme Court reasoned that tolling the statute of limitations for all purported class members upon the filing of a class action complaint would best promote the purposes of the class action procedure, which are efficiency and economy of litigation. American Pipe, 414 U.S. at 553-54, 38 L. Ed. 2d at 726-27, 94 S. Ct. at 766. Without such a tolling rule, the Court explained, class members not named in the original complaint would feel compelled to file motions to intervene in the action before the expiration of the limitation period in order to prevent loss of their claims in the event class status was ultimately denied after the limitation deadline. American Pipe, 414 U.S. at 553, 38 L. Ed. 2d at 726, 94 S. Ct. at 766.

The Court asserted that such "protective" filings would be unnecessarily duplicative and thus detrimental to the class action's goal of litigative efficiency. American Pipe, 414 U.S. at 553-54, 38 L. Ed. 2d at 726-27, 94 S. Ct. at 766. Similarly, in Crown, Cork, the Court reasoned that tolling the statute of limitations for purported class members who file separate, individual suits after the denial of class status was likewise essential to prevent needless "protective" filings of such suits during the pendency of the class action complaint. Crown, Cork, 462 U.S. at 350-51, 76 L. Ed. 2d at 634, 103 S. Ct. at 2396.

Plaintiffs concede that both American Pipe and Crown, Cork concerned individual suits filed in federal court after denial of class certification in federal court. Plaintiffs nevertheless contend that the tolling principles of those cases are applicable as well to individual suits filed in Illinois ...


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