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Court clarifies that only latent injuries fall within the “disease exception” to Georgia’s product liability statute of repose.

In a recent decision, Capes v. Ethicon, Inc., No. 1:19-cv-04895, the Northern District of Georgia finally shed light on the meaning behind one of the limited exceptions to Georgia’s ten-year statute of repose for negligence-based products liability claims.

Under Georgia law, strict liability claims are subject to a ten-year statute of repose from the date of first sale, without exception. The statute of repose also extends to negligence-based products liability actions, but with three limited exceptions: 1) where the manufacturer’s negligence resulted in a product causing a disease or birth defect; 2) where the injuries arose out of willful or wanton conduct; or 3) where the manufacturer negligently failed to warn of a danger arising out of use of a product. O.C.G.A. § 51-1-11(c).  Prior to the recent ruling in Capes, only one case had addressed the legislative intent behind the disease exception.

In Love v. Whirlpool Corp., 449 S.E.2d 602 (Ga. 1994), the Georgia Supreme Court mostly addressed the constitutionality of the statute of repose, O.C.G.A. § 51-11(b)(2) & (c). However, the Court did provide some insight into the legislative intent behind the disease exception, even though it ultimately held the plaintiff did not have standing to challenge the constitutionality of the exception.

Specifically, the Court noted that the 1978 report of the Senate Products Liability Study Committee recommended an exception to the statute of repose for products such as pharmaceuticals because the injurious effects of the products might not manifest within ten years of the first sale for consumption. Based on this report, the Court found the intent of the legislature was to “afford relief to plaintiffs whose claims are based on certain types of injury the latent effects of which may not be manifest for many years.” 449 S.E.2d at 606.

While the Love decision provided some insight into the legislative intent behind the disease exception, it left litigants wondering what would qualify as a disease and trigger the exception. The Capes decision helped answer this question.

In Capes, the plaintiff filed suit in 2013 for alleged injuries following a 2002 implant of a device for stress urinary incontinence. The defendants argued that the plaintiff’s negligent design defect claim was barred by the ten-year statute of repose, while the plaintiff argued the disease exception applied because the recurrent nature of her urinary tract infections was more similar to a disease than an injury.

The Capes Court looked to Love for guidance regarding the legislative intent behind the disease exception and determined the legislative intent was to protect individuals with latent injuries.  Based on this determination, the Court found that the plaintiff’s alleged injuries were not latent because she began experiencing the recurrent urinary tract infections “right after” the implantation of the product. Accordingly, the Court held the plaintiff’s negligent design defect claim was barred by the ten-year statute of repose because her alleged symptoms were not the type of injury that the legislature intended to include as part of the disease exception.

In sum, the Capes decision provides much-needed guidance regarding the application of the disease exception in future negligence-based products liability actions in Georgia. Indeed, when the disease exception is raised, defendants can now focus their investigation on the latency of the alleged injuries.