O’Rourke v. Jason Inc., 978 F. Supp. 41 (D. Mass. 1997)

Kevin O’Rourke was an employee with the Springfield Resource Recovery Plant in Agawam, Massachusetts. O’Rourke maintained and monitored the plant’s boilers. On July 14, 1991, O’Rourke investigated a malfunction in one of the boilers. In an attempt to cool down the system for further investigation, O’Rourke unscrewed the nuts that secured the doors. However, when he began to unscrew the nuts on one door, he noticed water leaking. As he turned away, pressure withing the hopper door forced the door to swing open. O’Rourke suffered first and second degree burns on his back and legs from contact with the scalding water.

O’Rourke filed a product liability lawsuit against the designer and manufacturer of the boiler’s hopper doors. He indicated the injury occurred on July 16th, 1991. Throughout the pretrial motions and discovery, the documents assumed the accident occurred on July 16th. In a motion filed by the plaintiff on February 14th, 1997, for the first time the motion papers referred to the injury occurring on July 14, 1991. On that same day, the parties had agreed to a settlement. The plaintiff’s attorney requested a hearing before the judge to approve the settlement.

On the morning of the settlement hearing, the defendant’s counsel was advised that the injury occurred on July 14th, not July 16th. The defendants refused to sign the settlement because the lawsuit appeared to have been filed one day after the statute of limitations ran out. The plaintiff filed a motion to enforce the settlement, and the defendant filed a motion to dismiss the case.

The court ruled that the important point is that a statute of limitations starts to run when an event has occurred which was reasonably likely to put a plaintiff on notice that someone may have caused his injury. It was O’Rourke’s counsel’s mistaken belief that the injury occurred on July 16, 1991, causing him to ensure that the complaint was filed by that date. Unfortunately, the date of filing, July 15, 1994, was one day late, making the settlement unenforceable.

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