Thursday, December 5, 2002
S.C. Extends Strict Liability to Makers of Windows for Homes
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer/Appellate Courts
Manufacturers of windows for mass-produced homes are subject to strict liability for damages caused by defects in their products, including damages caused to other parts of a house, the state Supreme Court ruled yesterday.
Such liability is consistent with the purpose of strict liability, as it was developed by the California Supreme Court and spread to other states—“to assure just compensation to innocent victims, to give all those in the distributive chain an incentive to improve product safety and performance, and to promote equitable spreading and apportionment of the losses resulting from physical injuries as a cost of doing business”— Justice Joyce L. Kennard wrote for the court.
In a 6-1 decision, the high court agreed with the Fourth District Court of Appeal, Div. One, that a strict liability claim against two companies that manufactured windows for homes in San Diego’s Scripps Ranch area was improperly dismissed.
Homeowners Filipina and Nestor Jimenez brought a class action against the manufacturers, along with the companies that installed the windows. Asserting strict liability and negligence claims, they alleged that the allegedly defective windows had damaged stucco, insulation, framing, drywall, paint, wall coverings, floor coverings, baseboards, and other property.
San Diego Superior Court Judge Thomas R. Murphy had granted summary adjudication in favor of the manufacturers, T.M. Cobb Company and Viking Industries, Inc., after they argued that strict liability principles did not apply, since they had no control over the process by which the windows became part of the home.
“The policies underlying strict products liability in tort—are equally applicable to component manufacturers and suppliers,” she wrote.
Kennard cited Vandermark v. Ford Motor Co. (1964) 61 Cal.2d 256, which extended strict liability to retailers of defective products, the year after California became the state in the nation to apply it to manufacturers.
“Like manufacturers, suppliers, and retailers of complete products, component manufacturers and suppliers are ‘an integral part of the overall producing and marketing enterprise,’ may in a particular case ‘be the only member of that enterprise reasonably available to the injured plaintiff,’ and may be in the best position to ensure product safety,” Kennard explained. “—And component manufacturers and suppliers, like manufacturers, suppliers, and retailers of complete products, can adjust the costs of liability in the course of their continuing business relationship with other participants in the overall manufacture and marketing enterprise.”
The justice rejected arguments that extending strict liability in this manner would “open the litigation floodgates.” Such “dire predictions” have long been part of the debate over strict products liability, Kennard noted, and do not account for the benefits of the rule, “including the incentives for improved product safety,” she said.
Kennard went on to reject the contention that strict liability, even if properly applied to defective components such as windows, should not apply in a case where the only damage was to the house itself.
The argument was based on the “economic loss rule,” which limits strict liability to claims for personal injury or damage to property, other than the defective product itself. The manufacturers had argued that the entire house, rather than the windows, were the relevant product for purposes of the rule.
“California decisional law has long recognized that the economic loss rule does not necessarily bar recovery in tort for damage that a defective product (e.g., a window) causes to other portions of a larger product (e.g., a house) into which the former has been incorporated,” Kennard wrote.
Justice Janice Rogers Brown was the lone dissenter. The decision, she said, “eviscerates the economic loss rule.”
Brown argued for a “product sold” test. Since the homeowners purchased their residences “as single, integrated products complete with windows and other constituent parts,” any damage caused to the home by a defective component such as a window should be remediable under contract, rather than tort, principles, the dissenting justice wrote.
The case is Jimenez v. Superior Court, 02 S.O.S. 5881.
Copyright 2002, Metropolitan News Company