The Georgia Statute of Repose for Products: When Does Time Begin to Run?

Georgia has a statute of repose for claims involving defective products. O.C.G.A. §51-11-11(b)(2) states that “no action shall be commenced pursuant to this subsection with respect to an injury after ten years from the date of the first sale for use or consumption of the personal property causing or otherwise bringing about the injury.” [Emphasis Added]  Prior to 2006, based upon this statute, products claims were brought against product manufacturers within ten (10) years after the product was purchased by the first consumer or user. However, in 2006 the ruling in Johnson v. Ford Motor Company changed the game. In Johnson, the Georgia Court of Appeals held that a claim involving damage caused by a product’s component part must be filed within 10 years after the part was incorporated into the final design of the product by the manufacturer.

In Johnson, the plaintiff suffered property damage when her Lincoln Town Car erupted into flames inside of her neighbor’s garage. The fire spread from the neighbor’s home to the plaintiff’s home. The plaintiff alleged that the vehicle’s speed control deactivation switch failed and caused the fire. The plaintiff sued the vehicle and the switch manufacturers to recover the damage to her property. The Court upheld the lower court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of the manufacturers and held that the 10 year statute of repose began to run “when Ford installed the switch in the car and the car became operable.” The Court reasoned that “when the car was driven off the assembly line, the starter had been actively placed in use, was in fact being used, and did not require purchase from the end user or consumer to be used for its “intended purpose.”

On February 7, 2011, the Georgia Supreme Court issued a ruling resolving the controversial issue raised in the Johnson case. See Campbell v. Altec Industries Inc., 288 Ga. 535 (2011). In Campbell, the Eleventh Circuit certified the following question to the Georgia Supreme Court: “In a strict liability or negligence action, does the statute of repose in O.C.G.A § 51-1-11 begin running when (1) a component part causing an injury is assembled or tested, (2) a finished product, which includes an injuring component part, is assembled, or (3) a finished product, which includes an injuring component part, is delivered to its initial purchaser?”

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The Rules of the Road Have Changed

Automobile Production LineThe Rules of the Road have changed, literally, with the bankruptcy filings of Chrysler and GM. Their restructurings have moved through the bankruptcy court at a dizzying pace.  The sale of substantially all of Chrysler’s assets to Fiat was approved in June, and in mid-July, a judge approved the sale of GM's most-valuable assets to a new company, majority owned by the federal government.  These reorganizations are structured as asset sales to new entities "free and clear" of tort claims arising from vehicles manufactured and sold pre-bankruptcy.

Through this process, the automakers are eliminating thousands of dealers and leaving tort claimants to recover just pennies on the dollar through the bankruptcy court because Chrysler and GM for all intents and purposes were self-insured for products defect claims.

Chrysler already has obtained bankruptcy court approval of its "free and clear" sale that purports to prohibit the assertion of all current and future claims involving a vehicle it sold pre-bankruptcy against "new" Chrysler.  GM’s treatment of tort claims is somewhat different. Bowing to political pressure, "new" GM has agreed that it would accept liability for all claims involving GM cars that were sold prebankruptcy, so long as the accident occurred after the June 1, 2009 filing of GM’s bankruptcy petition. As with Chrysler, however, claims arising from pre-bankruptcy accidents would still get paid in nearly-worthless "bankruptcy dollars." 

The terms of the sale leave a large group of tort claimants and insurer subrogees largely out of luck in pursuing claims against Chrysler and GM.  While claims which involve cars sold pre-bankruptcy can still be brought against "new" GM if the accident occurred after the June 1 filing of the bankruptcy petition, insurers will find that most other subrogation claims, like those of the tort claimants, will be relegated to the bankruptcy court to be processed as nearly-worthless, unsecured bankruptcy claims.

While "new" GM has accepted some liability for these types of claims, "new" Chrysler has not.  Thus, it is likely that despite the terms of the bankruptcy court order which prohibits the assertion of current and future claims against Chrysler, future claimants will attempt to assert successor liability claims against "new" Chrysler.  In addition to challenging this portion of the bankruptcy court's order in Chrysler, many of these claimants will seek other sources of recovery, such as dealers and suppliers; potentially exposing their insurers to risks they did not foresee underwriting.