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McKenna v. Ortho Pharmaceutical Corp.

decided: March 18, 1980.



Before Adams, Hunter and Higginbotham, Circuit Judges.

Author: Adams


After trial, but prior to the presentation of the case to the jury, the district court in this diversity case granted defendants' motion for a directed verdict on the ground that Ohio law barred recovery. Because we are persuaded by a careful review of the Ohio decisional law, as well as other relevant sources, that the Supreme Court of Ohio would not construe its statute of limitations so as to preclude recovery in this case, we reverse.


James and Sondra McKenna brought this suit for negligence, misrepresentation, and products liability against Ortho Pharmaceutical Corporation (Ortho). The plaintiffs charged that Mrs. McKenna suffered severe personal injury and permanent disability as a result of ingesting Ortho-Novum, an oral contraceptive manufactured and marketed by Ortho. Following the birth of the McKennas' second child, Mrs. McKenna began using Ortho-Novum in January 1965, after receiving assurances both from Ortho's published brochure and from her personal physician, that the drug was safe and posed no serious risks. In 1967, Mrs. McKenna developed severe headaches and also experienced two attacks of transient ischemia. While hospitalized in 1969 for a stomach ailment involving vessel wall damage, Mrs. McKenna was told that she had high blood pressure, which was characterized as hypertension. In June 1969, Mrs. McKenna ceased using the oral contraceptives. Three years later, in March 1972, she suffered a catastrophic cerebrovascular stroke that left her severely and permanently paralyzed.*fn1

One year and nine months thereafter, in November 1973, the McKennas commenced this action in a Pennsylvania state court by a praecipe for a writ of trespass.*fn2 On Ortho's motion, the suit was removed to the federal district court in Pittsburgh, where it was ultimately tried. The plaintiffs claimed that Mrs. McKenna's injuries were caused by her ingestion of Ortho-Novum; that Mrs. McKenna relied on Ortho's false assurances about the product's safety in deciding to use Ortho-Novum; that Ortho knew or should have known that these statements were false; and that Ortho-Novum posed a risk of serious harm to its users.

Prior to trial, the district court denied Ortho's motion for summary judgment on the ground that a genuine issue of material fact existed as to whether the McKennas knew, or reasonably should have known, more than two years prior to the commencement of the suit, that Mrs. McKenna's injuries resulted from the ingestion of Ortho-Novum. During the four weeks of jury trial, the McKennas introduced expert witnesses who testified that the cerebrovascular stroke was the ultimate result of either vessel-wall damage or high blood pressure, and that both of these conditions, as well as the headaches and transient ischemia attacks, were caused by Mrs. McKenna's ingestion of Ortho-Novum. At the close of trial, but prior to submission of the case to the jury, the district court granted Ortho's motion for a directed verdict on the ground that the action was barred under Ohio's statute of limitations. The district court concluded that the Ohio statute began to run, at the latest, in 1969 when Mrs. McKenna developed high blood pressure, and that the cause of action was accordingly barred because it was filed more than two years after that time. It is this conclusion that we review here.


Although Pennsylvania courts ordinarily apply the statute of limitations of the forum state,*fn3 the Pennsylvania "borrowing statute" in effect when the case was tried provided a statutory exception to this rule. It declared:

When a cause of action has been fully barred by the law of the state in which it arose, such bar shall be a complete defense to an action thereon in any of the courts of this Commonwealth.*fn4

The district court, in granting Ortho's motion for a directed verdict, reasoned that the Pennsylvania statute borrowed not only Ohio's two-year limitations period, but also Ohio's law governing the determination when the cause of action arises. In their appeal, the McKennas contend that this was error; they argue that even though the Pennsylvania statute "borrows" the law of Ohio regarding the length of the applicable limitations period, the question when that limitations period begins to run must be determined not by Ohio but by Pennsylvania law.

The McKennas premise their argument on this Court's prior decision in Mack Trucks, Inc. v. Bendix-Westinghouse Automotive Air Brake Company.*fn5 In Mack Trucks, we were asked to decide when an action for indemnity arose, for the purpose of determining whether the Pennsylvania "borrowing statute" was applicable to that action. Noting the "familiar rule" that a statute of limitations "begins to run when the cause of action arises, as determined by the occurrence of the final significant event necessary to make the claim suable," we held that a "cause arises where as well as when the final significant event that is essential to a suable claim occurs."*fn6 Because the final significant event essential to the action for indemnity happened in Florida, we concluded that Florida's statute of limitations applied.

Mack Trucks' application of the Pennsylvania "borrowing statute," the McKennas claim, depended upon the ascertainment of where the cause of action arose, which in turn was based on the prior determination of when it accrued. In support of this interpretation, the McKennas rely on Prince v. Trustees of the University of Pennsylvania,*fn7 which held, on the basis of Mack Trucks, that the "borrowing statute" applies "only upon satisfaction of two contingencies: (1) the cause of action must arise in another state; and (2) the cause of action must be totally barred by the law of that state. Under the Mack Truck analysis," the district court ...

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