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Hanley v. Cottrell

March 1, 2006

RODNEY HANLEY AND LINDA HANLEY, PLAINTIFFS,
v.
COTTRELL, INC., DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Herndon, District Judge

MEMORANDUM & ORDER

I. INTRODUCTION

Before the Court is defendant Cottrell, Inc.'s ("Cottrell") Motion for Summary Judgment and Brief in Support. (Doc. 22.) Plaintiffs Rodney Hanley and Linda Hanley (collectively, "Plaintiffs" or "the Hanley's") have filed their opposing Response, to which Cottrell has filed its Reply. (Docs. 38 & 40, respectively.) Cottrell's Motion for Summary Judgment follows its previous Motion to Dismiss. (Doc. 2.)

In its Motion to Dismiss, Cottrell argued that Plaintiffs' claims were time-barred under the applicable statute of limitations. (Id.) The Court denied Cottrell's request for a dismissal for failure to state a claim, noting that affirmative defenses (pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(c)), such as the statute of limitations, should not be resolved on the pleadings unless Plaintiffs have pled themselves out of court by admitting that the statute of limitations period had expired, with no further grounds for equitable exception. (Doc. 16. pp. 4-5.) In this case, the Court previously held that although it appeared Plaintiffs' claims were technically time-barred, it found Plaintiffs had sufficiently alleged facts consistent with the doctrines of equitable estoppel and equitable tolling to bar Cottrell's statute of limitations defense. (Id. at 7, 15.) Cottrell, in its Motion for Summary Judgment, again revisits the statute of limitations issue, asserting that Plaintiffs have failed to show a question of fact exists to support their allegations of equitable estoppel and equitable tolling.

II. BACKGROUND

A. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

Plaintiffs allege Rodney Hanley was injured on February 13, 2002, while performing a normal work duty of operating the rear loading skid of a trailer rig. (Doc. 1, ¶ 4.) This rig was manufactured by Cottrell. (Id.) Plaintiffs claim they did not know the identity of the rig manufacturer at the time of Mr. Hanley's accident. (Doc. 38, p. 5, ¶ 11.) Plaintiffs filed a discovery action against Mr. Hanley's employer, Jack Cooper Transport Company ("Cooper Transport"), in the Circuit Court of Madison County, Illinois, pursuant to ILLINOIS SUPREME COURT RULE 224, seeking the identity of the parties responsible for the design, manufacture, distribution, and maintenance of the trailer right that allegedly caused Mr. Hanley's injury. (Doc. 22, Ex. 5.)

During the Cooper Transport corporate deposition taken by Plaintiffs on May 3, 2004, it was discovered that Cottrell was the manufacturer of the trailer rig at issue. (Doc. 22, p. 3 and Ex. 6.) Subsequent to this discovery, on May 13, 2004, Plaintiffs filed a Motion to Convert Claims from a discovery motion into a lawsuit against Cottrell. (See Doc. 22, Ex. 5, from the case Hanley v. Cottrell, Inc., No. 04-CV-437-DRH.) Plaintiffs' motion was granted by the Illinois circuit court, allowing Plaintiffs to file their Complaint against Cottrell and Cooper Transport the following day on May 14, 2004.*fn1 (See Doc. 2, from the case Hanley v. Cottrell, Inc., No. 04-CV-437-DRH.)

The next month, Cottrell removed Plaintiffs' action to federal court based upon diversity jursidiction, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1332. (See Doc. 1, from the case Hanley v. Cottrell, Inc., No. 04-CV-437-DRH.) At the time, there were four plaintiffs in the case, the Hanleys and the Yows. (See footnote 1, supra.) Ultimately, the Court granted defendant Cooper Transport's Motion to Dismiss, and granted Cottrell's Motion to Sever, ordering the Hanleys and the Yows to file their amended complaints separately, thereby creating two separate lawsuits against Cottrell. (See Doc. 48, from the case Hanley v. Cottrell, Inc., No. 04-CV-437-DRH.)

Accordingly, Plaintiffs filed their First Amended Complaint in the instant matter on December 3, 2004. (Doc. 1.) Plaintiffs have stated claims against Cottrell for products liability, negligence, breaches of the implied warranties of merchantability and fitness for a particular purpose, loss of consortium, and punitive damages. (Doc. 1.) Plaintiffs' claims arise from Mr. Hanley's alleged work-related accident involving the trailer rig manufactured by Cottrell.

B. COTTRELL'S MOTION TO DISMISS

In its previous Motion to Dismiss, Cottrell argued Plaintiffs' claims were barred under the Illinois two-year statute of limitations for personal injury actions, as set forth in 735ILLINOIS COMPILED STATUTES 5/13-202(2002). As Plaintiffs alleged Mr. Hanley's injury occurred on February 13, 2002, but their initial complaint was not filed until May 14, 2004, Cottrell observed that Plaintiffs were time-barred from filing their claims. (Doc. 2.) This fact was not disputed by Plaintiffs. Instead, Plaintiffs asserted that the doctrines of equitable estoppel and equitable tolling prevented Cottrell from raising their statute of limitations defense. (Doc. 7.) Additionally, Plaintiffs argued that their claims alleging breach of implied warranties fell under the Illinois four-year statute of limitations, which had not yet run at the time these claims were initially stated in their First Amended Complaint. Lastly, Plaintiffs argued that their Complaint related back to the filing date of their Rule 224 Petition and thus, should not be barred by the statute of limitations.

In the order that addressed Cottrell's Motion to Dismiss, the Court found in regard to Plaintiffs' breach of warranties claim, additional information was needed to determine whether the four-year statute of limitations, set forth in 810 ILLINOIS COMPILED STATUTES 5/2-725(1), had run prior to the filing of Plaintiffs' First Amended Complaint. (Doc. 16, pp. 6-7.) Further, the Court determined that the "future performance" exception applicable to the four-year statute of limitations only applied to explicit warranties. (Id.) As Plaintiffs stated only claims for breach of implied warranties, the Court found that the future performance exception could not apply. (Id. at 7.) The Court further determined that the relation-back doctrine under both Illinois state and federal law was inapplicable to the instant case. (Id. at 11-14.)

However, in construing the pleadings in the light most favorable to Plaintiffs, the Court found Plaintiffs had sufficiently set forth facts in their First Amended Complaint consistent with the doctrines of equitable estoppel and equitable tolling, which could potentially bar Cottrell's statute of limitations defense. Specifically, the Court found the following of Plaintiffs' allegations supported a theory of equitable estoppel: (1) Plaintiffs alleged Cottrell took active steps to conceal its identity from Plaintiffs until after the two-year statute of limitations had run, such as participating in a common scheme and influencing Mr. Hanley's employer not to disclose its identity (Doc. 1, ¶¶ 16, 17); and (2) Plaintiffs alleged they exercised due diligence in attempting to discover Cottrell's identity but had not been successful (Doc. 1, ¶ 18).

The Court similarly found the following allegations supported a theory of equitable tolling: (1) Plaintiffs alleged they were misled through a scheme between Mr. Hanley's employer, Cooper Transport, and Cottrell (Doc. 1, ¶¶ 16-17) -- the scheme prevented them from asserting their rights in an extraordinary way, given they did not have access to the trailer rig and Cottrell had urged Cooper Transport to deliberately withhold Cottrell's identity (Doc. 1, ¶¶ 11-19); and (2) Plaintiffs alleged they exercised due diligence and still could not timely learn of Cottrell's identity (Doc. 1, ¶¶ 11, 18). As such, the Court denied Cottrell's Motion to Dismiss. (Doc. 16.)

Now, after the parties have participated in the discovery process, Cottrell files its Motion for Summary Judgment, arguing that Plaintiffs cannot show that a question of fact exists to support their allegations of equitable estoppel and equitable tolling. (Doc. 22.) In other words, Cottrell asserts that Plaintiffs cannot show any type of scheme or conspiracy between Cottrell and Cooper Transport to keep Cottrell's identity a secret from Plaintiffs. Therefore, Cottrell again argues that Plaintiffs' claims are time-barred and seeks summary judgment in its favor.

III. ANALYSIS

The Court's analysis will now consider the facts and evidence of the case, applying the legal standard for summary judgment, which imposes a greater burden of proof upon Plaintiffs than the legal standard for a motion to dismiss. If the Court finds that Plaintiffs' claims are time-barred and that Plaintiffs have failed to meet their burden of proof to allow an equitable exception, then summary judgment must be granted in favor of Cottrell.

A. SUMMARY JUDGMENT

Summary judgment is appropriate under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure when "the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." FED.R.CIV.P. 56(c); Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). The movant bears the burden of establishing the absence of factual issues and entitlement to judgment as a matter of law. Wollin v. Gondert, 192 F.3d 616, 621-22 (7th Cir. 1999). The Court must consider the entire record, drawing reasonable inferences and resolving factual disputes in favor of the non-movant. Schneiker v. Fortis Ins. Co., 200 F.3d 1055, 1057 (7th Cir. 2000); Baron v. City of Highland Park, 195 F.3d 333, 337-38 (7th Cir. 1999).

In reviewing a summary judgment motion, the Court does not determine the truth of asserted matters, but rather decides whether there is a genuine factual issue for trial. EEOC v. Sears, Robuck & Co., 233 F.3d 432, 436 (7th Cir. 2000). No issue remains for trial "unless there is sufficient evidence favoring the non-moving party for a jury to return a verdict for that party. If the evidence is merely colorable, or is not sufficiently probative, summary judgment may be granted." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 249-50 (1986); accord Starzenski v. City of Elkhart, 87 F.3d 872, 880 (7th Cir. 1996), cert. denied, 519 U.S. 1055 (1997); Tolle v. Carroll Touch, Inc., 23 F.3d 174, 178 (7th Cir. 1994). As such, " '[i]f no reasonable jury could find for the party opposing the motion, it must be granted.' " Oates, 116 F.3d at 1165 (quoting Hedberg v. Indiana Bell Tel. Co., 47 F.3d 928, 931 (7th Cir. 1995)(citing Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248). However, summary judgment may not be averted merely by the non-moving party "baldly contesting his adversary's factual allegations," but instead, the Plaintiff must come forth with probative evidence to substantiate the allegations of the complaint. Id. (citing First Nat'l Bank of Arizona v. Cities Serv. CO., 391 U.S. 253, 290 (1968); Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586 (1986)).

B. WHETHER PLAINTIFFS' CLAIMS WERE FILED WITHIN THE APPLICABLE STATUTE OF LIMITATIONS PERIODS

1. The Illinois Statute of Limitations for Personal Injury Actions

Neither party objects that the Illinois Statute of Limitations for Personal Injury Actions, set forth in 735 ILLINOIS COMPILED STATUTES 5/13-202, applies to all of Plaintiffs' claims, except for the breach of implied warranties claims. A two-year statute of limitations is applicable to all personal injury and product liability actions under Illinois law. 735 ILL.COMP.STAT. 5/13-202; see also Lowe v. Ford Motor Co., 313 Ill. App. 3d 418, 420, 730 N.E.2d 58, 60, 246 Ill. Dec. 378, 380 (1st Dist. 2000)("Under the Illinois Code of Civil Procedure, the statutes of limitation for personal injury and product liability claims require that such lawsuits generally be commenced within two years of the date on which the cause of action accrued.")(citing to 735ILL.COMP.STAT. 5/13-202).

The date of Mr. Hanley's alleged injury from which Plaintiffs' suit stems was February 13, 2002. (Doc. 22, p. 2.) Therefore, the Illinois two-year statute of limitations period expired on February 13, 2004. However, Plaintiffs did not file their initial Complaint until May 14, 2004. (Doc. 2.) Neither party contests the fact that Plaintiffs filed their initial Complaint after the two-year statute of limitations had expired and the Court found as much in the previous Order (Doc. 16) regarding Cottrell's Motion to Dismiss.*fn2 As Plaintiffs have not brought forth any new arguments otherwise, the Court maintains its former finding that technically, ...


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