In sum, the economic loss rule does not bar recovery in tort when the defendant’s alleged misconduct implicates a tort duty that arises independently of the terms of the contract. In some circumstances, a plaintiff’s alleged harm is nothing more than a contractual breach or a difference in the profits, revenue, or costs that the plaintiff had expected from a business enterprise. In other circumstances, however, the harm is simultaneously the result of the defendant breaching an independent and concurrent tort duty. Thus, while the harm can be described as an economic loss, it is more than that: it is an injury remediable in tort. The test is not simply whether an injury is an economic loss arising from a breach of contract, but rather whether the injury is traceable also to a breach of a tort law duty of care arising independently of the contract. The court defines the duty of care and the risks of harm falling within the duty’s scope.
Recent Florida Decision Related to Chinese Drywall Liability — Will it lead the way in other litigation?
The Wall Street Journal here provides a history of the issues that have resulted from the installation of Chinese-drywall in American homes and the resulting litigation associated with those problems. This article also provides a brief summary of the Bennett decision and poses the question whether it “could set a template for other judges to use to adjudicate drywall cases across the country.” Homebuilders hope so.
We are called upon to decide whether the trial court erred in ruling that a product liability action may be based upon a claim for breach of an implied warranty of merchantability and a claim for revocation of acceptance where the product was defective and the only damage suffered by the buyer was the economic loss of the product itself.
The procedural posture of this case would likely bore you and create a lot of extra reading to get the important lesson from this case across to you. That said, I will only briefly recite the basic underlying facts of this case. Dammann is a producer of raw foods, including vanilla beans. Dammann sold IFF vanilla beans, by written contract, for incorporation into IFF’s food and beverage flavoring. IFF incorporated Dammann’s beans into its vanilla extract only later to find out that the beans were contaminated with mercury. As a result, IFF filed claims against Dammann for breach of express warranty, breach of implied warranty, and product liability.
The Court found that there were two schools of thought resolving this question. The majority employs some variation of the following test:
Tort remedies are unavailable for property damage experienced by the owner where the damage was a foreseeable result of a defect at the time the parties contractually determined their respective exposure to risk, regardless whether the damage was to the goods themselves or to other property.
On the other hand, the minority test differentiates between damage to the product itself and other property. The Court held that the New Jersey Supreme Court would likely join the majority and apply the economic loss doctrine to bar IFF’s claim. The Court reasoned this way because New Jersey precedent consistently held that “contract law [was] better suited to resolve disputes between parties where a plaintiff alleges direct and consequential losses that were within the contemplation of sophisticated business entities with equal bargaining power and that could have been the subject of their negotiations.” Further, the Court found that IFF alleged damages, including scrapping of contaminated finished flavoring, claims from customers, testing costs, plant cleaning costs, and lost profits were purely economic damages.
Practitioners should be aware of both the majority and minority rules on this issue and be on the look out to see if the New Jersey Supreme Court resolves this issue as the Third Circuit predicted it would rule in this matter.
Last month, the South Carolina Supreme Court retreated from some exceptions it had previously carved out of the economic loss rule and strongly suggested the possibility that it will find no further exceptions to the rule. In Sapp & Smith v. Ford Motor Co., — S.E.2d —-, No. 26754 (S.C. Dec. 21, 2009), the Court began this new direction by noting that South Carolina continues to follow the economic loss rule in products liability cases:
‘The economic loss rule is a creation of the modern law of products liability. Under the rule, there is no tort liability for a product defect if the damage suffered by the plaintiff is only to the product itself.’ Kennedy v. Columbia Lumber & Mfg. Co., 299 S.C. 335, 341, 384 S.E.2d 730, 734 (1989). In other words, tort liability only lies where there is damage done to other property or personal injury.
Id. In the past, South Carolina courts have developed an exception to the rule for construction of residential homes. See Kennedy, 299 S.C. at 341, 384 S.E.2d at 734. Some of the reasons for the exception were: a home is typically the single largest investment of an individual, a home is a completely different type of manufactured good, and the sale of a home involves inherently unequal bargaining power between the parties. Two years ago, in Colleton Preparatory Acad,, Inc. v. Hoover Universal Inc., 379 S.C. 181, 666 S.E.2d 247 (2008), the court seemed to extend this exception to the construction of commercial buildings, as well.
In Sapp, the plaintiffs involved in the consolidated appeal had each purchased used Ford trucks. The trucks allegedly had a design defect with their cruise control mechanism, which in turn caused the trucks to catch fire. In each case, there was neither a personal injury claim nor a property damage claim (other than to the trucks themselves). Further, in each respective case, the plaintiffs lost at the trial court level due to the court’s application of the economic loss rule. On appeal, each plaintiff argued that the exception outlined in Colleton applied to their cases, and thus, their claims should not be barred by the economic loss rule. The court disagreed, holding that that the economic loss rule barred both plaintiffs’ claims.
The Sapp court went on to overrule the expansion of the exception initially created in Kennedy. In so doing, it expressly overruled Colleton to the extent it expanded the narrow exception to the economic loss rule beyond the residential builder context as pronounced by Kennedy.