On May 5, 2009, the Ohio Supreme Court held that Ohio's statute governing the refiling of previously dismissed wrongful death claims -- which provides a different time limit than for refiling other civil actions -- does not violate the right to equal protection under the 14th Amendment. Eppley v. Tri-Valley Local School Dist. Bd. of Edn., Slip Opinion No. 2009-Ohio-1970.
On November 26, 2003, Joshua Eppley was killed in a traffic accident on his way home from the Tri-Valley School District. In August 2005, Joshua's father filed a wrongful death action against Tri-Valley seeking damages. Eppley voluntarily dismissed the case without prejudice on September 15, 2005, and refiled it on September 26, 2006.
Writing for the majority, Justice Lanzinger noted that previously the general saving statute, R.C. 2305.19(A), and the wrongful death statute, R.C. 2125.04, contained a "malpractice trap" by requiring that claims dismissed before the statute of limitations had expired must be refiled before the original deadline. But, claims dismissed after the statutory deadline could be refiled within one year after the date of dismissal. The General Assembly amended the general savings statute in 2004 to cure the "malpractice trap," but did not change R.C. 2125.04.
Tri-Valley moved to dismiss, arguing that Eppley's suit was subject to R.C. 2125.04. R.C. 2125.04 provides that wrongful death actions are subject to a two-year statute of limitations and requires that when a wrongful death claim is voluntarily dismissed before the statutory deadline for filing such a claim, a plaintiff that chooses to refile must do so before the original deadline. Under this statute, the suit should have been refiled no later than September 26, 2005.
The Ohio Supreme Court held that R.C. 2125.04 -- rather than R.C. 2305.19(A) -- applies as a specific statute takes precedence over a general statute. Thus, the statute specifically applicable to wrongful death actions should be applied instead of the general saving statute.
The Court then addressed whether R.C. 2125.04 violates the Fourteenth Amendment's Equal Protection Clause. Writing for the 6-1 majority, Justice Lanzinger opined that Eppley is not a member of a protected class of litigants and a wrongful death claim does not implicate a fundamental right. Therefore, the rational basis test is applicable. Under this test, the Court found that resolving claims expeditiously and preventing delays in the disbursement of the estate of a decedent are legitimate government interests. The Court held that R.C. 2125.04 does not violate equal protection.
The majority opinion was joined by Chief Justice Moyer and Justices Stratton, O'Connor, O'Donnell, and Cupp. Justice Pfeifer wrote a dissenting opinion.