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Gomez v. Arkema, Inc.

United States District Court, N.D. Illinois, Eastern Division

March 12, 2014

RICHARD GOMEZ, Plaintiff,
v.
ARKEMA, INC., f/k/a Atofina Chemicals, Inc., f/k/a Elf Atochem North America, Inc., f/k/a Atochem North America, f/k/a Pennwalt Corporation, f/k/a Pennsalt Corporation STOKES, F.J. CORPORATION, a/k/a F.J. Stokes Corporation, STOKES, F.J. MACHINE COMPANY, a/ka F.J. Stokes Machine Company, F.J.S. CORPORATION, STOKES EQUIPMENT COMPANY, INC., STOKES EQUIPMENT COMPANY, Defendants.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

ROBERT W. GETTLEMAN, District Judge.

Plaintiff Ricardo Gomez sued defendants Arkema, Inc., F.J. Stokes Corporation, and F.J. Stokes Machine Company, alleging negligence and strict products liability. Defendants have moved pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 56 for summary judgment, arguing in part that plaintiff's claims are barred by the products liability statute of repose, 735 ILCS 5/13-213, and the construction statute of repose, 735 ILCS 5/13-214. Plaintiff subsequently also moved for summary judgment, arguing that both statutes of repose are unconstitutional. For the reasons stated below, plaintiff's motion for summary judgment is denied, and defendants' motion for summary judgment is granted.

BACKGROUND

On August 7, 2007, plaintiff, an employee of Georgia Nut, was cleaning a vacuum tunnel machine that Georgia Nut uses in the production of malted milk balls. Plaintiff reached his hand into the vacuum tunnel to push down accumulated debris, but the machine had not been turned off. The airlock paddle caught plaintiff's hand, and his index and middle fingers were amputated. Defendants were either involved in the manufacture of this vacuum tunnel or have retained liability for the injuries that it causes.

Between roughly 1955 and 1960, FJ Stokes manufactured the vacuum tunnel and then sold it to an unknown buyer. In 1963, Pennsalt Chemicals Corporation bought the assets and liabilities of FJ Stokes. Pennsalt changed its name to Pennwalt Corporation and sold the assets of the Stokes Division to Stokes Vacuum, Inc. Pennwalt retained the liabilities for machines shipped before September 1, 1988. Through a series of name changes, Pennwalt became Arkema.

After the initial sale, the vacuum tunnel passed through a series of owners. Then, in about 1993, Georgia Nut purchased the machine from Candy USA. The vacuum tunnel facilitates the puffing and hardening of the malted milk ball centers by sending them along a conveyor in a controlled atmosphere. The vacuum tunnel is connected to the malted milk ball production system by a bucket conveyor that feeds the ball centers to the vacuum tunnel and a rotating regulating conveyor that discharges them. The vacuum tunnel is eighty-feet-long and has not been moved since Georgia Nut purchased and installed it.

Plaintiff sued defendants in 2008, alleging both negligence and strict liability claims against each defendant. All of plaintiff's claims are based on the vacuum tunnel's alleged defects. These include: the absence of an interlock or automatic shutoff; the inadequacy of the guarding; and the insufficiency of the warnings and the instructions. Defendants filed a third party complaint against Georgia Nut. Georgia Nut settled with plaintiff for $125, 000 and was dismissed.

DISCUSSION

Plaintiff and defendants have both moved for summary judgment pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 56. Summary judgment is appropriate where there is no genuine issue of material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56. The movant bears the burden of establishing both elements, Becker v. Tenenbaum-Hill Associates, Inc. , 914 F.2d 107, 110 (7th Cir. 1990), and all reasonable inferences are drawn in favor of the non-movant, Jones v. Illinois Bell Tel. Co., 2013 WL 5781814, at *3 (N.D. Ill. Oct. 24, 2013) (citing Fisher v. Transco Services-Milwaukee Inc. , 979 F.2d 1239, 1242 (7th Cir. 1992)). If the movant satisfies the burden, then the non-movant must set forth specific facts showing there is a genuine issue for trial. Nitz v. Craig, 2013 WL 593851, at *2 (N.D. Ill. Feb. 12, 2013). In doing so, the movant cannot simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts. Pignato v. Givaudan Flavors Corp., 2013 WL 995157, at *2 (N.D. Ill. Mar. 13, 2013) (citing Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co., v. Zenith Radio Corp. , 475 U.S. 574, 586 (1986)).

In support of their motion for summary judgment, defendants argue in part that plaintiff's claims are barred by the products liability statute of repose, 735 ILCS 5/13-213, and the construction statute of repose, 735 ILCS 5/13-214. Plaintiff argues in support of his motion for summary judgment that both statutes of repose are unconstitutional.[1] Plaintiff's motion will be addressed first.

Statutes of repose are substantive statutes that extinguish a right to bring a cause of action regardless of whether it has accrued. Cornet v. Gromann Service Company-Retail , 590 N.E.2d 1013, 1015 (Ill.App.Ct. 1992) (citing Highland v. Bracken , 560 N.E.2d 406 (Ill.App.Ct. 1990)). The products liability statute of repose bars strict liability claims that arise more than twelve years "from the date of first sale, lease or delivery of possession by a seller or [ten] years from the date of first sale, lease or delivery of possession to its initial user, consumer, or other non-seller." 735 ILCS 5/13-213 (b); Landry v. Keene Corp. , 811 F.Supp. 367, 372 (N.D. Ill. 1993). The construction statute of repose, which covers improvements to real property, bars all claims that arise more than ten years after the installation of an improvement. 735 ILCS 5/13-214 (b).

Plaintiff argues that the two statutes of repose are special legislation that violate both the Illinois Constitution's and the United States Constitution's "guarantees of due process, equal protection, access to the courts, complete and certain remedy, and the right to trial by jury." Plaintiff is incorrect.

"[A] strong presumption of constitutionality attaches to legislative enactments." Apex Oil Co., Inc. v. Metro. Water Reclamation Dist. of Greater Chicago, 2006 WL 566451, at *10 (N.D. Ill. Mar. 3, 2006) (quoting Rose v. Pucinski , 746 N.E.2d 800, 804 (Ill.App.Ct. 2001)). A party who challenges the constitutionality of a statute "bears the heavy burden of clearly establishing the violation alleged." Id . (quoting Rose , 746 N.E.2d at 804).

Plaintiff relies on two arguments to overcome this burden. Plaintiff first argues that the insurance crisis that motivated the adoption of the statutes of repose has ended. Plaintiff attempts to prove this fact by citing several sources, including a 1983 New Hampshire case, an article from the Asian Journal, and a ...


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