Judge sides with Ford Motor Co. in products liability case

By Jon Campisi | May 6, 2013

A federal judge in Philadelphia has granted judgment in favor of Ford Motor Co. in a case involving the auto maker's seat belt restraint and airbag system.

The merits of the case initiated by plaintiff Eric Voicheck, however, were not addressed, since Ford won its victory on a legal technicality.

According to the May 3 opinion by U.S. District Judge Joel H. Slomsky, who sits in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, Voicheck failed to make a good faith effort to serve his complaint on the defendant after it was discovered that the vehicle manufacturer was no longer located at its prior address.

The court record shows that Voicheck, who claims he was injured when his 2000 Ford Ranger pickup truck veered off the roadway and crashed into a tree in Chester Heights, Delaware County on Nov. 2, 2008, filed a complaint against Ford on Oct. 29, 2010, asserting claims of negligence, strict liability and breach of implied warranties of merchantability and fitness for a particular purpose.

On Nov. 8 of that year, the record shows, the plaintiff attempted to serve Ford with the complaint at a Pittsburgh address, although the deputy sheriff who had attempted service returned the process receipt about two weeks later with a comment that Ford had apparently moved out of that location sometime in the mid 1990s.

The plaintiff didn’t make another attempt to serve Ford within the 30-day period provided by the Pennsylvania Rules of Civil Procedures, Slomsky wrote, meaning the original complaint became invalid.

Furthermore, Voicheck made no attempt to continue the claim’s “validity” by reissuing the writ or reinstating the complaint until Oct. 9, 2012, which is when he re-filed the lawsuit, the record shows.

This time, the suit was served on the defendant at its “newly located site” in Harrisburg, the judicial opinion states.

By that time, however, it was too late; the statute of limitations had run out.

Ford asserted as much when it moved for judgment on the pleadings, arguing that all three counts in the complaint were time-barred by that point in time.

The court held a hearing on the motion for judgment in early February.

In his opinion, Slomsky agreed with the defendant that the suit should be dismissed, writing that the plaintiff’s negligence and strict liability claims are barred by the two-year statute of limitations because he failed to make a “good faith effort to undertake service of process on Ford.”

Voicheck had argued that his attempt to serve Ford on Nov. 20, 2010, constituted good faith and entitled him to a new two-year limitations period.

Slomsky disagreed, writing that only a single attempt was made to serve Ford after the lawsuit’s original filing, and that Voicheck’s attorney failed to make “any real inquiry” into Ford’s new location.

Voicheck’s lawyer admitted during the February hearing that the defendant could have been served anywhere, including at the Harrisburg location or at its Michigan headquarters.

In the end, the judge wrote that Voicheck has failed to meet his burden to establish that he made a good faith effort to serve Ford with the complaint.

Slomsky also dismissed Voicheck’s breach of warranty claims.

According to the judge’s opinion, Pennsylvania’s four-year statute of limitations period is shorter than Ford’s five-year written warranty on a vehicle’s safety restrain system, and thus the four-year period would apply in this case.

In Voicheck’s case, Slomsky wrote, any claim for breach of implied warranty would have been extinguished sometime around 2004.

“Plaintiff’s accident occurred on November 2, 2008, and he initially filed the Complaint on October 29, 2010,” the judge wrote. “Both dates post-date the statute of limitations period by many years.”

The judge ordered the case closed.

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