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COHN v. G. D. SEARLE & CO.

March 22, 1978

SUSAN COHN and WALTER COHN, her husband, Plaintiffs,
v.
G. D. SEARLE & COMPANY, Defendant



The opinion of the court was delivered by: MEANOR

 This matter comes before the court on defendant's motion for summary judgment. For reasons stated hereinafter, the issues presented by this motion will be treated in two stages. This first opinion is addressed to the question whether the defendant is entitled to the benefit of the statute of limitations. The resolution of the issue turns on the construction and application of the New Jersey tolling statute to a foreign unlicensed corporate defendant which, from the time of the occurrence of the injury alleged in the instant complaint, had no formal presence within New Jersey yet remained amenable to long-arm service.

 If it is determined that the defendant has available to it the defense of the statute of limitations, then it will be necessary to decide whether the plaintiffs are entitled to the "discovery" exception to strict application of the statute.

 Plaintiffs Susan and Walter Cohn have brought this suit against G. D. Searle & Co. (hereinafter "Searle"), the manufacturer of the oral contraceptive Enovid, for personal injury and per quod damages allegedly resulting from Mrs. Cohn's use of the drug. Mrs. Cohn commenced taking the contraceptive in the spring of 1963 and continued its use until December 22, 1964. On that date she suffered a stroke, or cerebral vascular accident (C.V.A.), when a blood clot lodged in the circulatory system of her brain. The C.V.A. required surgery, long hospitalization and rehabilitative therapy and resulted in permanent physical injury.

 From the sparse information before me at this time it appears that in 1964 little or nothing was known about potential coagulant side effects of oral contraceptives. However, from at least 1966 the medical literature and the lay press increasingly reported work which suggested a relationship between oral contraceptives and abnormal blood clotting. Sometime between 1966 and late 1973 the Cohns became aware of the possible link between Mrs. Cohn's C.V.A. and ingestion of Enovid. They initiated suit against Searle on January 29, 1974. Their complaint, predicated on theories of negligence, breach of warranty, statutory violations and strict liability, was filed in the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Bergen County. Service was effected on Searle under the long-arm rule. On April 1, 1974 the case was removed to this court pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1441. Jurisdiction is vested under 28 U.S.C. § 1332.

 At all times relevant to this action the plaintiffs have been residents of New Jersey. Searle is a Delaware corporation with its principal place of business in Illinois. Prior to December 30, 1960 Searle was registered to do business in New Jersey, but on that date it formally withdrew from the state. However, from 1964 to 1974, the period between Mrs. Cohn's C.V.A. and the filing of the instant complaint, Searle retained in its employ some four dozen persons known as Medical Service Representatives or "detailmen" who worked and, in most cases, resided in New Jersey. The function of these detailmen was to call on physicians to discuss Searle's pharmaceutical products.

 Searle moves for summary judgment on grounds that plaintiffs' cause of action is time-barred under the relevant two-year statute of limitations, N.J.S.A. 2A:14-2 (1952). *fn1" Searle acknowledges that plaintiffs may have some relief from the strict two-year limit under the New Jersey "discovery" rule. Fernandi v. Strully, 35 N.J. 434, 173 A.2d 277 (1961); Lopez v. Swyer, 62 N.J. 267, 300 A.2d 563 (1973). Nevertheless, Searle asserts that the Cohns had reason to know of the cause of action against Searle no later than 1970, and, therefore, their claims are precluded.

 Plaintiffs respond that their action is timely because the causal relationship between contraceptives and clotting was not definitively demonstrated until late 1973, and that in any case the New Jersey tolling statute, N.J.S.A. 2A:14-22 (1952), *fn2" deprives Searle of the statute of limitations because Searle is a foreign corporation not represented within the state by "any person or officer" upon whom process could be served within the meaning of the tolling statute. Searle retorts that the tolling statute is inapplicable because Searle was effectively represented within the state by its detailmen, or alternatively, by virtue of the fact that from the date of the C.V.A. onward it was subject to New Jersey long-arm jurisdiction. Finally, if the tolling statute, as interpreted by the New Jersey courts, is deemed to apply to a foreign corporation amenable to long-arm service, Searle asserts that the statute as applied violates the equal protection and due process clauses of the United States Constitution. Thus, the questions presented by this motion are whether Searle is entitled to the benefit of the statute of limitations, and if so, whether the plaintiffs' action is timely upon application of the "discovery" rule even though the instant complaint was filed over nine years after the injury to Mrs. Cohn. I shall consider the statute of limitations issue here. Because I find Searle is entitled to a statute of limitations defense, I must reach the second question, but I leave it for another day. *fn3"

 At the heart of the issue of whether Searle has a statute of limitations defense is the construction and application of the tolling statute. N.J.S.A. 2A:14-22 provides in relevant part:

 
If any person against whom there is any of the causes of action specified in sections 2A:14-1 to 2A:14-5 and 2A:14-8 . . . is not a resident of this state when such cause of action accrues, or removes from this state after the accrual thereof and before the expiration of the times limited in said sections, or if any corporation . . . not organized under the laws of this state, against whom there is such a cause of action, is not represented in this state by any person or officer upon whom summons or other original process may be served, when such cause of action accrues or at any time before the expiration of the times so limited, the time or times during which such person . . . is not residing within this state or such corporation . . . is not so represented within this state shall not be computed as part of the periods of time within which such an action is required to be commenced by the section. The person entitled to any such action may commence the same after the accrual of the cause therefor, within the period of time limited therefor by said section, exclusive of such time or times of nonresidence or nonrepresentation.

 (Emphasis supplied.) The statute exempts from its effect foreign corporations represented in the state by "any person or officer" upon whom process may be served.

 It is undisputed that Searle has had no statutory or appointed agent in New Jersey at any time from the date of Mrs. Cohn's C.V.A. Nevertheless, Searle first argues that it is within the foreign corporation exception because it was represented by detailmen who are "persons or officers" within the meaning of the tolling statute. The rules pertaining to service on foreign corporations from the date of Mrs. Cohn's injuries are R.R. 4:4-4(d) (effective Sept. 3, 1958) and its successor R. 4:4-4(c)(1) (effective Sept. 8, 1969) (current version). Searle notes that under these rules jurisdiction may be obtained over a foreign corporation "by serving . . . any servant of the corporation within this State acting in the discharge of his duties." Searle argues that the tolling statute must be construed to be consistent with the service rules during the time period relevant to this action, and since personal jurisdiction could have been obtained over Searle by serving a detailman in the discharge of his duties, representation by detailmen during the period was sufficient to stay the tolling of the statute of limitations.

 Searle's argument is not persuasive for two reasons. First, Searle's proposed construction of the foreign corporation exception to the tolling statute is inconsistent with the manifest purpose of the statute itself. That enactment was intended to protect plaintiffs in New Jersey courts *fn4" by preserving their causes of action where service could not be had upon a defendant on account of absence from the state. Lemke v. Bailey, 41 N.J. 295, 303, 196 A.2d 523 (1963) (Schettino, J., dissenting); Ferraro v. Ferro Trucking Co., 72 N.J.Super. 519, 524, 179 A.2d 74 (Law Div. 1962). Searle's detailmen operated out of their homes because Searle had no office within this state. They reported to Searle's office in Skokie, Illinois. Their function was to talk to New Jersey doctors about Searle's products to advertise them and generate good will for the company. Searle does not assert that they had any power to make contracts or place orders. Thus, the detailmen had minimal association with Searle in the public eye and had very limited authority to act on behalf of the company. It is inconceivable, in light of the purpose of the tolling statute, that the legislature intended to give the benefit of the statute of limitations to a foreign corporate defendant whose only representation within the state was by employees so invisible as these.

 The second reason that Searle's rationale is not convincing is that it incorporates into the tolling statute changes in the law which were made after the act's passage. Narrowly drawn statutory language must be interpreted from the intent of the legislature in light of circumstances at the time of enactment. 2A Sutherland, Statutory Construction § 49.02 (4th Ed. 1973). "A new meaning may not be given the words of an old statute in consequence of changed conditions probably not foreseen by the Legislature." Fidelity & Deposit Co. of Maryland v. Abagnale, 97 N.J.Super. 132, 143-44, 234 A.2d 511 (Law Div. 1967). The present tolling statute has its origins in an enactment of the Council and General Assembly of New Jersey on February 21, 1820. The foreign corporations exception was added by amendment in 1949. ...


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