The Minnesota Supreme Court has issued a decision that has the potential to significantly increase the filing of product liability and other claims in Minnesota courts between now and August 1, 2010, when Minnesota's new borrowing statute, Minn. Stat. § 541.31, will apply to all claims. Thousands of plaintiffs domiciled in other states have filed lawsuits in Minnesota to take advantage of Minnesota's longer and more favorable statutes of limitations for fraud and negligence. On September 3, 2009, in the case Fleeger v. Wyeth, et. al. (No. A08-2124), the Court confirmed that the Minnesota statute of limitations will continue to apply to personal injury claims brought by non-Minnesota resident plaintiffs against non-Minnesota resident defendants, even if the events giving rise to the claims do not occur in Minnesota.
The plaintiff, Rachel Fleeger, is a Pennsylvania resident who took hormone replacement drugs from 1995 until 2001. In 2001, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. In 2002, a study by the Women's Health Initiative found a link between hormone therapy and an increased risk of breast cancer. This study and subsequent studies resulted in the filing of thousands of lawsuits by plaintiffs, such as Fleeger, against manufacturers of hormone replacement drugs, such as Wyeth and Greenstone, the defendants in the Fleeger case.
Fleeger filed her lawsuit in the United States District Court for the District of Minnesota even though she had no connection to the state and neither Wyeth nor Greenstone are incorporated or have their principal place of business in Minnesota. Fleeger's claim would have been barred by Pennsylvania's two-year statute of limitations, but was not barred by Minnesota's six-year statute of limitations for fraud and negligence. The case was subsequently transferred to the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas, which is handling the Prempro hormone replacement multidistrict litigation. The MDL Court certified to the Minnesota Supreme Court the question of whether the Minnesota statute of limitations applies in the Fleeger case.
The Minnesota Supreme Court framed the question as follows:
In a case commenced in Minnesota, does the Minnesota statute of limitations apply to the personal injury claims of a non-Minnesota resident against a defendant not a resident of Minnesota, where the events giving rise to the claims did not occur in Minnesota and took place before August 1, 2004?
The Minnesota Supreme Court answered the question "yes." For purposes of answering the certified question, the Court assumed Fleeger's claim accrued in 2002 when the Women's Health Initiative study was released. Relying on a long history of Minnesota choice-of-law precedent, the Court explained that statute-of-limitations issues are procedural not substantive, and that Minnesota courts have consistently applied the law of the forum state when conflicts of procedure arise. The Court noted that there were strong policy reasons to alter the common law rule, but found that those strong policy reasons did not provide a sufficiently compelling basis to overrule long-standing precedent, especially when the Minnesota legislature has already acted to alter the common law rule. The Court confirmed that for all claims accruing before August 1, 2004, the effective date of Minnesota's new borrowing statute, the Minnesota statute of limitations will continue to apply to claims filed in Minnesota regardless of the parties' residence, as long as the defendants are subject to general personal jurisdiction in Minnesota. As a result, Minnesota will continue to be available as a litigation forum for plaintiffs who reside in other states with shorter statutes of limitations.
Minnesota's new borrowing statute applies to all claims accruing on or after August 1, 2004. Under the new borrowing statute, if a claim is substantively based on the law of one state, the new borrowing statute will require the limitation period of that state to apply in most cases. If a claim is substantively based on the law of more than one state, the limitation period of one of those states will be chosen to apply based on the Minnesota conflict of laws analysis.