• Minnesota Supreme Court Decision Impacts Liability Exposure
  • November 4, 2009 | Authors: Jeffrey S. Fertl; Shushanie E. Kindseth; Melissa J. Lauritch
  • Law Firms: Hinshaw & Culbertson LLP - Milwaukee Office; Hinshaw & Culbertson LLP - Minneapolis Office; Hinshaw & Culbertson LLP - Milwaukee Office
  • On September 3, 2009, the Supreme Court of Minnesota issued its opinion in Fleeger v. Wyeth, et al., Case No. A08-2124 (771 N.W.2d 524). The decision impacts the liability exposure of product manufacturers when a claim is brought in Minnesota.

    In its opinion, the Minnesota Supreme Court determined that in a case commenced in Minnesota, the state’s statute of limitations applies 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 decision allows the named plaintiff, Rachel Fleeger, as well as and thousands of other plaintiffs, to remain a party to the underlying multidistrict litigation, In re Prempro Products Liability Litigation, MDL-1507.

    Hinshaw & Culbertson LLP filed an amicus brief with the Minnesota Supreme Court on behalf of the Product Liability Advisory Council (PLAC) in support of defendants’ position that the mechanical application of Minnesota’s six-year statute of limitations as a procedural rule is out of step with modern choice-of-law analysis and is contrary to the approach advocated by the Minnesota legislature. The Supreme Court disagreed.

    The Minnesota Supreme Court’s decision impacts the underlying multidistrict litigation to the extent that the thousands of plaintiffs who took advantage of Minnesota’s six-year statute of limitations will not be dismissed on statute of limitations grounds and will continue as plaintiffs in that action. However, the decision's impact on liability exposure in general is limited because Minnesota’s current borrowing statute became effective August 1, 2004. Minnesota’s six-year statute of limitations will apply in cases properly commenced in Minnesota where the injury arose prior to August 1, 2004 and the suit commenced prior to August 1, 2010.

    In re Prempro Products Liability Litigation involves a class of plaintiffs who allege that hormone therapy drugs manufactured by defendants caused their breast cancer. Between 1995 and 2001, Fleeger took two hormone therapy drugs manufactured by defendants while she resided in Pennsylvania. In 2001 she was diagnosed with breast cancer. In 2002, a study published by the Woman’s Health Initiative linked hormone therapy to an increased risk for breast cancer. For purposes of the Minnesota action, the parties agreed to assume that Fleeger’s claim accrued in 2002.

    Fleeger, a Pennsylvania resident, filed her complaint in the U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota. Her case was subsequently transferred to an MDL court. Fleeger filed her claim in Minnesota, which has a six-year statute of limitations, rather than in Pennsylvania, where the two-year statute of limitations would have time-barred her claim. More than 4,000 other plaintiffs in the MDL proceedings have filed their claims against defendants in Minnesota, despite being non-Minnesota residents. The Minnesota Supreme Court accepted the certified question to determine whether Minnesota’s statute of limitations applied.

    The Minnesota Supreme Court provided a brief review of its prior case history in an effort to establish that Minnesota’s common law is “clear” with respect to the issue of statute of limitations. Although the Court acknowledged that there are “strong policy reasons” to alter Minnesota’s common law rule, it ultimately concluded that there is no “compelling reason to overrule our long-standing precedent that the Minnesota statute of limitations applies in cases properly commenced [in Minnesota].”

    The Minnesota legislature repealed the state’s borrowing statute in 1977 to enable the court to apply a modern choice-of-law analysis. In 2004, the legislature enacted a new borrowing statute that applies to claims arising from incidents occurring on or after August 1, 2004. Because Fleeger’s claim arose in 2002, the court declared that Minnesota’s common law governed.

    The Minnesota Supreme Court stressed that its prior decisions reflect an unwavering consistency in considering statutes of limitations as procedural. In Milkovich v. Saari, 295 Minn. 155, 203 N.W.2d 408, the court departed from the rule of lex loci -- applying the law of the location where the injury occurred -- in favor of the more modern five-part Lefler test.

    In 1983, the Minnesota Supreme Court declined to apply the Milkovich test in Davis v. Furlong, 328 N.W.2d 150 (Minn. 1983). In considering whether to apply Minnesota or Wisconsin law, the court asserted that for procedural conflicts, the lex fori rule -- applying the law of the forum -- should be applied. The Court acknowledged that in Davis it did not address whether statutes of limitation were procedural or substantive.

    The Court declared that “[w]hen directly faced with the issue, we have considered statutes of limitations to be procedural without exception.” The opinion cites a number of prior decisions wherein the Court described statutes of limitations as procedural. Although the Court conceded that on several occasions it has noted that statutes of limitations have both substantive and procedural aspects, it dismissed these comments as merely dicta.