Full text of the Court's opinion

On October 22, 2008, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled that its 1977 decision in Temple v. Wean United Inc.1 does not apply retroactively to impose civil liability on non-manufacturer sellers or suppliers of defective products. DiCenzo v. A-Best Prods. Co., Inc., Slip Opinion No. 2008-Ohio-5327.

In a 5-2 majority opinion authored by Justice Lundberg Stratton, the Court held:

  1. In general, an Ohio court decision applies retroactively unless its application interferes with contractual or vested rights under the former interpretation of the law; and
  2. A court has discretion to apply a decision prospectively provided it complies with the three-part test articulated by the U.S. Supreme Court in Chevron Oil v. Huson2.

Joseph DiCenzo was employed by Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel Corporation ("Wheeling-Pittsburgh") from the 1950s to 1993, during which time he was exposed to products containing asbestos. In 1999, he was diagnosed with mesothelioma and died shortly thereafter. DiCenzo's wife instituted this action against approximately 90 defendants, including Appellant George V. Hamilton, Inc. ("Hamilton"), a company that sold pipe coverings containing asbestos to Wheeling-Pittsburgh during the 1950s.

Hamilton filed a motion for summary judgment arguing that Ohio law does not recognize claims against sellers or distributors of defective products. The motion was granted but later reversed by the Eighth District Court of Appeals. On appeal, the court relied on the Ohio Supreme Court's decision in Temple in finding that an injured consumer may assert claims against a non-manufacturer seller or supplier of a defective product under a theory of strict liability. The Court of Appeals determined that Temple did not meet the Chevron Oil criteria for prospective application. Thus, Temple was to be applied retrospectively to allow Plaintiff to recover from Hamilton.

The Ohio Supreme Court noted that it had not previously adopted the Chevron Oil test to determine whether a decision should apply only prospectively. Under Chevron Oil, the answers to three questions determine whether a decision should be applied prospectively only:

  1. Does the decision establish a new principle of law that was not clearly foreshadowed?
  2. Does retroactive application of the decision promote or hinder the purpose behind the decision?
  3. Does retroactive application of the decision cause an inequitable result?

After finding that (1) two of the Chevron Oil questions are nearly identical to the factors already considered under Ohio law in determining whether an Ohio Supreme Court decision should receive prospective-only application and (2) Chevron Oil remains viable for analyzing state law, the Court adopted Chevron Oil's analytical framework "for the purpose of determining when an exception to retroactive application of Ohio state court decisions may be justified"3.

When Chevron Oil was applied to the facts before it, the Court concluded that Temple defined a new rule of law by recognizing a claim for "strict liability" against nonmanufacturing suppliers of products. Applying Temple retroactively would not promote or hinder the purpose behind the new strict liability rule announced in Temple, but retroactive application would cause an inequitable result:

A primary "purpose of the strict liability doctrine is to induce manufacturers and suppliers to do everything possible to reduce the risk of injury and insure against what risk remains." . . . . Products containing asbestos have not been manufactured or sold for approximately 30 years. The time for making these products safer has come and gone. Thus, retroactively applying Temple to nonmanufacturing sellers of asbestos products will not promote the purpose of making those products safer . . . . Imposing such a potential financial burden on these nonmanufacturing suppliers years after the fact for an obligation that was not foreseeable at the time would result in a great inequity4

In reversing the Eighth District's decision, the Ohio Supreme Court held that Temple does not apply to pre-1977 sales.

The majority opinion was joined in its entirety by Justices O'Connor, O'Donnell, Lanzinger, and Cupp. Chief Justice Moyer dissented without opinion. Justice Pfeifer wrote a dissenting opinion characterizing the majority's decision as "unheard of" and "an affront to stare decisis"5.