Defendants, Systems Maintenance Corporation (hereafter SMC) and Polymark Futurail (hereafter Polymark), both move for summary judgment. The questions presented are whether New Jersey's or California's statute of limitations should apply with respect to plaintiff's personal injury claim and if plaintiff has misapplied the fictitious defendant rule, Rule 4:26-4. These motions arise from the following factual setting.
On December 10, 1986, plaintiff, Kenneth Washington (hereafter Washington) was injured during the course of his employment as a manager at H.A.S.S. Corporation (hereafter H.A.S.S.), a California Company, located in Los Angeles, California. Plaintiff sustained personal injuries when a bag of laundry fell on him from an overhead automatic laundry conveyance system. Plaintiff's injuries included a disc herniation which required surgery. Importantly, at all times relevant to this litigation, Washington has without interruption been a domiciliary of California. That is, prior to the accident, on the day of the accident and continuously thereafter, Washington has resided in California.
SMC, a New Jersey corporation, bought the laundry conveyance system from Polymark, an English company. Polymark designed and manufactured the laundry conveyance system. The system was then bought by Brim Laundry Machinery Company (hereafter Brim), a Texas company, who then sold it to H.A.S.S. in Los Angeles, California. SMC supplied the labor for installation and Polymark supervised the installation of the system.
On or about November 30, 1988, plaintiff filed a products liability and personal injury lawsuit against SMC and a fictitious defendant corporation who allegedly manufactured, designed and/or sold the laundry system. On July 12, 1990, almost four years after the injury, SMC filed a third party complaint against Polymark and Brim Laundry Machinery Company. Polymark was served on December 2, 1991. On April 28, 1992, plaintiff filed an amended complaint, naming Polymark as a direct defendant.
SMC argues that plaintiff's suit should be barred because California's one-year statute of limitations for products liability and personal injury actions should apply, rather than New Jersey's two-year statute of limitations. If California's law applies, then plaintiff's complaint would have been filed after the one-year statute of limitations had expired and would be time barred.
Polymark makes the same argument as SMC regarding the choice-of-law issue. Polymark also argues that plaintiff misapplied the fictitious defendant rule, R. 4:26-4, by waiting to amend the complaint to name Polymark as a direct defendant instead of naming Polymark as a defendant from the outset of the suit. Plaintiff, at the very least, knew of Polymark's involvement with the laundry system prior to his accident because, in the course of his employment with H.A.S.S., he had contacted Polymark when the system needed repair.
The issue of which state's statute of limitations is controlling will be addressed first due to the fact that it directly
affects the status of the case as to both SMC and Polymark. New Jersey has a two year statute of limitations for products liability and personal injury actions (N.J.S.A. 2A:14-2) and California has a one year statute of limitations (Cal.Code Civil Proc., Statute 340(3). When a conflict arises regarding choice-of-law, the choice-of-law rules applicable in the forum state should be applied. In Allen v. Volkswagen of America, Inc., 555 F. 2d 361, 362 (3rd Cir.1977), the court acknowledged the common-law rule that:
In diversity cases, "the federal courts must follow conflict of law rules prevailing in the states in which they sit." Klaxon Co. v. Stentor Co., 313 U.S. 487, 494, 61 S. Ct. 1020 [1020-21], 85 L. Ed. 1477 (1941). Confronted by a conflict between two competing statutes of limitations, the district court in this case properly turned to the New Jersey case governing the subject, Heavner v. Uniroyal, Inc., 63 N.J. 130 [305 A.2d 412].
The New Jersey Supreme Court established this approach to choice-of-law issues regarding the statute of limitations in Heavner v. Uniroyal, Inc., 63 N.J. 130, 305 A.2d 412 (1973). The Court found the need for a more rational rule for resolving a conflict between two states' statutes of limitations and for limiting forum shopping. In Heavner, both of the plaintiffs resided in North Carolina, the accident occurred in North Carolina and the plaintiffs brought suit in New Jersey against Uniroyal, a New Jersey corporation. The Supreme Court held that:
Thus, the Heavner Court found that the North Carolina law applied, that the statute of limitations had expired and the case was time barred.
Allen v. Volkswagen Inc., supra, involved a factual scenario similar to the case at bar. There, the plaintiff resided in California and the car accident occurred in California, yet the plaintiff brought suit in New Jersey on the eve of the expiration of New Jersey's two-year statute of limitations. Volkswagen was incorporated in New Jersey, but the court found that the New Jersey incorporation was insufficient to prove that New Jersey had a substantial interest in the litigation. "A defendant's incorporation in New Jersey and presence in New ...