Court Embraces the Absurdity Doctrine; Estabrook v. Mazak Corporation

Indiana’s Product Liability Act contains a ten-year statute of repose, which one could safely characterize as unartfully drafted. This case deals with sloppy drafting and the way that courts deal with it.

Estabrook was injured in 2014 by a machine his employer bought from Mazak in 2003. Estabrook brought suit, and Mazak argued that the claim was barred by the statute of repose. Estabrook disagreed, arguing that the machine had been repaired after it was sold, and that this started the statute of repose anew. The district court certified the following question to the Indiana Supreme Court:

Can the statute of repose codified in Ind. Code § 34-20-3-1(b) be extended by post-sale repair/refurbishment/reconstruction of the product and, if so, what is the appropriate test to be used to determine whether the seller has done sufficient work to trigger the extension?

The statute in question is Ind. Code § 34-20-3-1(b), which says that

A product liability action must be commenced:
(1) within two (2) years after the cause of action accrues; or
(2) within ten (10) years after the delivery of the product to the initial user
or customer.

The statute goes on to say that someone hurt at least eight years but less than ten years after that initial delivery has two years to file a suit. The Court recognized that a “careful reader” of this statute would conclude that

the plain meaning of the disjunctive “or” is that Estabrook’s productliability action is timely if either of the statute’s two requirements is satisfied: either he sues within two years after his action accrues, or he sues within ten years after the product’s delivery to his employer.

But in 1981, the Court concluded that the “clear intention of the legislature … was to limit the time within which product liability actions can be brought,” and it construed this “or” to mean “and.” And the Court reaffirmed this decision, finding that this is “one of those rare cases for invoking the absurdity doctrine” because (1) no reasonable person could have intended this result and (2) a judicial remedy is easy.

We reaffirm Dague’s interpretation of the statute as one of limitation and repose. And, like Dague, we agree that the statute’s best interpretation reads “or” as if it were “and”. We elaborate here only to make clear that we do not disregard the disjunctive “or” lightly or because doing so suits our own policy preferences. Rather, we conclude that that is the only interpretation consistent with the legislature’s stated preferences, as reflected in the entirety of its enactment.

Turning to the certified question, the Court rejected the idea of a “judicially created exception” to the statute of repose.

The statute is straightforward. … And it does not mention “repair”, “refurbishment”, “reconstruction”, or any comparable term that would authorize restarting the limitations clock when a manufacturer’s subsequent, post-delivery actions have purportedly transformed the “product” initially delivered. Given these textual constraints, we decline to interpret the statute of repose to include an exception for product modifications that the legislature could have enacted but did not. … As we have noted previously, “[w]e neither applaud the wisdom” of the legislature’s policy choices, “nor condemn their folly.” We merely interpret the statute the legislature enacts. The disputed statute before us today does not permit Estabrook’s proposed “new-product” exception.

It may not be the best look for the Court to hinge its decision on its commitment to interpreting statutes as written in the same opinion that it sua sponte reaffirms that the legislature made a mistake when it wrote “or” instead of “and.” As a practical matter, plaintiff’s attorneys must think carefully about their legal theories when bringing a product liability claim related to an older product.

Justice Slaughter waxed philosophically in his opinion about “an ancient, still unsolved riddle of metaphysics, which Plutarch made famous with his ‘Ship of Theseus Paradox’”.

Plutarch put the question this way: Suppose Theseus sails back from Crete and docks his ship in an Athenian port. Over time, the Athenians, determined to preserve the ship, replace board after rotted board until they finally replace the last original piece. Plutarch asks, “Is this a new ship?” When a confident pupil answers “yes”, Plutarch follows up by posing the difficult line-drawing question: “With which board did the ship become new?” Just as Plutarch’s pupil was forced to answer the second question, so too would any court having to define when, specifically, a “new product’ was delivered to the initial user. Because we decide this case based on the statute’s plain meaning, we need not try to resolve the line-drawing conundrum occasioned by this modern counterpart to Plutarch’s ancient riddle.

In his opinion, Justice Slaughter also re-affirmed the pre-eminent role played by the Indiana Supreme Court in determining Indiana law: “[W]e alone are the final arbiter of Indiana law and owe no deference to the interpretations of Indiana law pronounced by other courts.” You might want to keep this in your pocket when opposing counsel is relying on a Court of Appeals decision.

Lessons:

1.Courts may invoke the absurdity doctrine when interpreting a statute if (1) no reasonable person could have intended this result, and (2) a judicial remedy is easy.

2. Under the absurdity doctrine “or” could mean “and.”

3. The statute of repose for product liability claims will not be extended by any product refurbishment or modification, even if it has all new components (e.g., boards).

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