On March 2, 2016, Indiana’s highest court declared the Indiana Product Liability Act (“IPLA”) statute of repose unconstitutional as applied to asbestos claims. In its 3-2 decision, the Indiana Supreme Court essentially overruled a prior landmark decision in and decided that the statute of repose did not apply to cases “where the plaintiffs have had protracted exposure to inherently dangerous foreign substances.”
The overruled decision, AlliedSignal v. Ott, 785 N.E.2d 1068 (Ind. 2003), had upheld the asbestos statute of repose against an Equal Privileges and Immunities Clause challenge. Ott held that while there was a distinction “between asbestos victims and other victims under the product liability act,” the statute of repose did not harm asbestos plaintiffs because they are either subject to the same statute of repose as non-asbestos plaintiffs or have an exception if the defendant “mined and sold commercial asbestos.”
Last week’s opinion was issued in a triple consolidated appeal: Myers v. Crouse-Hinds Division of Cooper Industries, Inc.; General Electric Company v. Geyman; and Owens-Illinois, Inc. v. Geyman. Each of these cases involved the same constitutional challenges rejected by the court in Ott. Specifically, the court addressed the interrelation of two sections of the IPLA, each specifying different time limits within which claims must be filed. Section 1 of chapter 3 of the IPLA, which governs to product liability claims generally, specifies a two-year discovery statute of limitations and a statute of repose that limits claims to those brought within 10 years of delivery of the product to a consumer. Section 2 of chapter 3 governs personal injury claims arising from asbestos exposure, omits the 10-year repose limitation and “applies only to product liability actions against persons who mined and sold commercial asbestos.” For years, the state of the law has been that Section 2 did not apply to manufacturers of asbestos-containing products because they did not mine the asbestos within their products.
Here, the court decided that it was not bound by Ott because the plaintiffs’ constitutional challenge proposed a different set of disparately treated classes of plaintiffs. “Instead of comparing asbestos victims to non-asbestos victims [as in Ott], they compare two separate types of asbestos victims.” This led to the different result. “Section 2 draws a constitutionally impermissible distinction between asbestos plaintiffs injured by defendants who both mined and sold raw asbestos and asbestos plaintiffs who were injured by defendants outside that category.” The court ruled both Sections 1 and 2 unconstitutional as applied to asbestos plaintiffs, meaning that no statute of repose currently exists for asbestos claims in Indiana.
We anticipate that this opinion will alter the landscape of asbestos litigation in the very near future, and expect to see more filings in Indiana.
A copy of the decision is available here.