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Couture v. Haworth Inc.

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

January 7, 2020

JON COUTURE, Plaintiff,



         Plaintiff Jon Couture alleges that he was injured when the armrest of his office chair broke as he was using the armrest to stand up. Couture brought claims against Haworth, Inc. and Haworth International, LTD. for negligent products liability (Count I), strict products liability (Count II), and breach of warranty (Count III). Defendants seek judgment in their favor arguing that: (1) Couture's strict liability and breach of warranty claims are untimely, (2) all claims against Haworth International, LTD are untimely; and (3) Couture's claims fail because he cannot show the chair was defective or that any alleged breach of duty by Haworth caused Couture's injuries. For the reasons stated below, Defendants' motion for summary judgment [57] is granted.


         Summary judgment is proper where “the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a); see also Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). A genuine dispute as to any material fact exists if “the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). The substantive law controls which facts are material. Id.

         The party seeking summary judgment has the burden of establishing that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact. See Celotex, 477 U.S. at 323 (1986). After a “properly supported motion for summary judgment is made, the adverse party must set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 250 (quotation omitted). Construing the evidence and facts supported by the record in favor of the non-moving party, the Court gives the non-moving party “the benefit of reasonable inferences from the evidence, but not speculative inferences in [its] favor.” White v. City of Chi., 829 F.3d 837, 841 (7th Cir. 2016) (internal citations omitted). “The controlling question is whether a reasonable trier of fact could find in favor of the non-moving party on the evidence submitted in support of and opposition to the motion for summary judgment.” Id. (citation omitted).


         Couture claims that he was injured on February 12, 2013 when the left armrest of an office chair (the “Chair”) that he was using at his workplace broke off as he got out of the Chair. (DSOF (Dkt. 59), ¶25). At the time, he weighed approximately 395 pounds and the Chair was more than twelve years old. (Id. ¶¶26-27). The type of chair at issue is a Haworth Improv HE mid-back general-purpose office chair with height adjustable arms (“Model Chair” (as compared to the “Chair” which refers to the specific chair used by Couture)). (Id. ¶8). Couture's employer, Hartford, ordered the Chair on April 3, 2000. Haworth manufactured the Chair on May 2, 2000 and delivered it to Hartford on May 11, 2000. (Id. ¶¶28-29). Before February 12, 2013, Couture had been using the Chair for approximately four to five years. (Id. ¶30).

         The Business and Institutional Furniture Manufacturers' Association (“BIFMA”) has developed standards and guidelines for office furniture since 1973, and has been an American National Standards Institute (ANSI) Accredited Standards Developer since 1980. (Id. ¶¶12-13).[2] Haworth designs its office chairs in accordance with the ANSI/BIFMA X5.1 General Purpose Office Chairs Standard (the “BIFMA X5.1 Standard”). (Id. ¶16).[3] Haworth subjects its chairs, including the Model Chair, to periodic compliance testing to ensure the chairs pass the current BIFMA standard. (Id. ¶21).[4] In 2000, Haworth subjected the Model Chair to compliance testing that tested arm rest strength in accordance with the then-current 1993 BIFMA Standard, and the Model Chair passed these tests. (Id. ¶22). In addition, Haworth tested the arm durability of the Model Chair, which was an additional test not required by the 1993 BIFMA Standard, and the Model Chair passed that test. (Id. ¶24). In addition to the Model Chair, Haworth also manufactures an office chair specifically designed for larger, heavier individuals-the Improv HE XL chair “XL Chair.” (Id. ¶39). It is larger than the Model Chair, and designed and tested to support individuals weighing up to 500 pounds. (Id. ¶40).

         On August 15, 2014, Couture filed a products liability lawsuit against Haworth, Inc. based on his injuries resulting from the Chair armrest breaking. (DSOF ¶5; see No. 14-cv-07127, Dkt. 1-1). The case was later removed to federal court, and on March 13, 2015, Couture voluntarily dismissed the case, with the parties filing a stipulated dismissal without prejudice pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 41. (DSOF ¶6; No. 14-cv-07127 at Dkts. 23, 24). On March 11, 2016, Couture filed the instant complaint in state court. (Compl., Dkt. 1-2). He brought the same claims as in the 2014 case for strict products liability, breach of warranty, and negligent products liability, and this time named as defendants both Haworth, Inc. and Haworth International, LTD. Defendants timely removed the case from state to federal court. (Dkt. 1; DSOF ¶7).[5]


         I. Couture's Strict Liability and Breach of Warranty Claims are Time- Barred

         Couture concedes that his strict liability and breach of warranty claims are untimely. (Dkt. 70). Under Illinois' statute of repose, “no product liability action based on the doctrine of strict liability in tort shall be commenced except within the applicable limitations period and, in any event, within 12 years from the date of first sale, lease or delivery of possession by a seller or 10 years from the date of first sale, lease or delivery of possession to its initial user, consumer, or other non-seller, whichever period expires earlier.” 735 ILCS 5/13-213(b); see also Yao-Wen Chang v. Baxter Healthcare Corp., 599 F.3d 728, 733 (7th Cir. 2010) (“a statute of repose, which is designed specifically for products-liability suits…overrides the discovery rule [because] because of the long latency of many product defects, which can under a discovery rule impose vast and unpredictable products liability on manufacturers.”). It is undisputed that the chair was delivered to the Hartford on May 11, 2000. (DSOF ¶29). Couture therefore had to bring his strict products liability claim by May 11, 2010 to be timely. He did not do so in his original 2014 complaint or in this case.

         For a breach of warranty claim, the statute of limitations in Illinois is four years. 810 ILCS 5/2-725. A cause of action accrues and the statute of limitations begins to run when delivery is made, regardless of when the defect is discovered, with one exception which Couture does not argue applies here. See 810 ILCS 5/2-725(2). The Chair was delivered on May 11, 2000 (DSOF ¶29), so Couture's breach of warranty claim should have been filed by May 11, 2004. Couture did not timely file this claim. Therefore, both the strict product liability claim (Count II) and breach of warranty (Count III) claims are time-barred and dismissed with prejudice.

         II. Haworth International, LTD

         Defendants argue that Couture failed to timely plead any claims against Haworth International, LTD. In response, Couture contends that his claims against Haworth International, LTD “relate back” to his original complaint under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 15(c). However, Federal Rule 15(c)(1), which governs amendments to pleadings, does not apply here. This case does not involve an amendment to a currently pending pleading. It involves a re-filed action under Illinois' “savings statute” which allows a plaintiff to “commence a new action” within one year after voluntarily dismissing it. 735 ILCS 5/13-217 (emphasis added).[6] See Short v. Grayson, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 36389, at *24 n.9 (N.D. Ill. Mar. 14, 2017) (“Section 13-217, however, governs the refiling of causes of action, not the relation back of amendments to a currently pending pleading, which is governed by 735 ILCS 5/2-616.”) (emphasis in original); see also Apollo Real Estate Inv. Fund, IV, Ltd. P'ship v. Gelber, 398 Ill.App.3d 773, 782, 343 Ill.Dec. 721, 730 (1st Dist. 2009) (distinguishing amendments from refiled actions).

         The reason Couture's negligence claims against Haworth Inc. are timely is because of Illinois' savings statute which operates as “an extension of the applicable statute of limitations.” Kruk v. Birk, 168 Ill.App.3d 949, 954, 119 Ill.Dec. 625, 629 (1st Dist. 1988). But that is not so for Haworth International, LTD. Haworth International, LTD was not named in the 2014 action. Even if the re-filed complaint is based on the same set of facts, adding a different defendant “constitute[s] a separate ‘action.'” Flynn v. Allis Chalmers Corp., 262 Ill.App.3d 136, 140, 199 Ill.Dec. 408, 410 (2d Dist. 1994). Thus “section 13-217 does not entitle a plaintiff to refile an action naming a new defendant.” Guiffrida v. Boothy's Palace Tavern, Inc., 2014 IL App (4th) 131008, ¶ 56, 387 Ill.Dec. 154, 166. See also Brengettcy v. Horton, 2006 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 45828, *23 (N.D. Ill. 2006) (a plaintiff may not use the savings statute to add new parties).

         As a result, to be timely, Couture had to file his negligent products liability (including failure to warn) claim against Haworth International, LTD by February 13, 2015.[7] Couture did not do so. He filed this lawsuit on March 11, 2016. Accordingly, all claims against Haworth International, LTD are dismissed with prejudice.[8]

         III. Negligence Claims against Haworth Inc.

         The remaining claims are negligent products liability and negligent failure to warn against Haworth Inc. ...

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