“Sealed Container” Defense does not Apply to UCC Breach of Warranty Claims

July 29, 2009

Alabama appellate courts have long held that the “sealed container” defense applies to retailers and distributors sued on products liability claims under the Alabama Extended Manufacturer’s Liability Doctrine (AEMLD).  Pursuant to Atkins v. American Motor Corp., 335 So.2d 134 (Ala. 1976), a retailer or distributor may avoid liability under the AEMLD if it shows:

…that he is in the business of either distributing or processing for distribution finished products; he received a product already in a defective condition; he did not contribute to this defective condition; he had neither knowledge of the defective condition, nor an opportunity to inspect the product which was superior to the knowledge or opportunity of the consumer.

Plaintiffs, in two separate actions, sued defendants, alleging claims under the AEMLD and for breach of the Uniform Commercial Code (UCC) implied warranties of merchantability and fitness for a particular purpose, in an action involving injuries from their ingestion of diatary suppliments.  Defendants removed the cases to federal court, contending that the retailer, the only Alabama defendant, was fraudulently joined.

The federal court certified a question to the Alabama Supreme Court, inquiring whether the sealed container defense applied to the UCC warranty claims.  The Court provided a lengthy response, and in a 5-4 opinion, held that is was inapplicable to the UCC claims.  Sparks v. Total Body Essential Nutrition, Inc., No. 1071708.

The Court discussed the history of the UCC and its predecessor, the Uniform Sales Act.  In Bradford v. Moore Bros. Feed & Grocery, 268 Ala. 217, 105 So.2d 825 (1958), the Supreme Court held that the sealed container defense was applicable to claims brought under the Uniform Sales Act.  However, the Court recognized that that when the UCC was enacted, it did not specifically include any reference to the defense.  In holding that the defense did not apply to the UCC claims, the Court stated “we view this silence as an abrogation of the common-law defense, rather that permission to carry it forward,” and that the question was “a policy matter best left to the wisdom of the legislature.”

This opinion is troublesome for product liability defendants.  Often, claims under the AEMLD are joined with UCC warranty claims. Although the sealed container defense remains applicable to the AEMLD claim, the Sparks opinion clearly holds that it does not apply to the warranty claims, thus preventing summary judgment on those claims.  Moreover, the facts presents in Sparks are quite common. Frequently, the retailer will be the only local defendant, and its inclusion in the suit will destroy diversity, rendering the action nonremovable to federal court. Hopefully, the Alabama legislature will accept the invitation of the Court, and make the sealed container defense applicable to warranty claims under the UCC.


Chinese Drywall Coverage Litigation Working its Way Through Courts

June 11, 2009

The Insurance and Reinsurance Report has posted an informative update on the status of several pending lawsuits over coverage for Chinese drywall issues in both homeowner’s and CGL policies.  Having been involved in considerable EIFS litigation several years ago (with a few stragglers still around), I am paying attention to this to see how it compares.  Although I see some similarities, there are some marked differences as well.

First, both products obviously are componants that are incorporated into a structure, and arguably are intended to have the same useful life of the structure.  The Alabama Supreme Court has held that such componants are not “products” within the meaning of the Alabama Extended Manufacturers Liability Doctorine (AEMLD).  In Keck v Dryvit Systems, Inc., 830 So.2d 1 (Ala. 2002), the Court held:

The owner of a house or of any building should reasonably expect that many components will have the same useful life as the house or building itself and will not need to be replaced over the life of the building. Such components include, by way of example, an exterior brick wall, a staircase, or a fireplace. There are also certain components of a house or a building the purchaser reasonably expects to wear out and to require replacement in the course of normal and ordinary usage, such as roof shingles, a dishwasher, a furnace, or a hot-water heater. Whether an item that is incorporated into real property may be considered a “product” for purposes of the AEMLD is determined by whether the item is a part of the structural integrity of the house or building that is reasonably expected to last for the useful life of the house or building. If it is, then the item cannot be considered a “product” for purposes of the AEMLD. However, if the item is attached or incorporated into real property and, yet its very function and nature clearly makes it an item that one would reasonably expect to repair or to replace during the useful life of the realty, the item may be considered a “product” for purposes of the AEMLD. For instance, although paint, when applied to the structure of a wall, becomes incorporated into the surface of the wall, paint is a structural improvement that does not have the same useful life as the wall itself or the building to which the wall is attached; one would expect to have to repaint a wall to maintain the quality of the first application. Therefore, paint would be considered a product for purposes of the AEMLD.

In Keck, the Court held that EIFS was intended to last for the useful life of the structure, and was not subject to the AEMLD.  Moreover, the Court held that it was not a “good” under the Uniform Commercial Code, and therefore was not subject to the rules concerning warranties of merchantability.  Arguably, drywall would meet the Keck test as well, and would therefore not be calssified as a “product” or a “good.”

It is also questionable whether a builder or installer would be held liable for negligence regarding the installation of chinese drywall.  In my opinion, this is the central difference between drywall and EIFS litigation.  In regard to EIFS, the negligence theories against builders and installers often revolved around agruments that the system was improperly installed, and that installation led to problems with moisture intrusion, termites, etc.  Conversely, it’s at least my understanding that the drywall issues concern the product itself, and not its installation.

There are some potential issues for building owners on this point, as generally, a builder is not liable for latent defects in building materials that are used and “he is not liable to the owner for the latent defect or liable for the amount of damage to the building caused by such defect.” 13 Am. Jur. 2d, Building and Construction Contracts § 27 (1997); Wood-Hopkins Contracting Co. v. Masonry Contractors, Inc., 235 So.2d 548 (Fla. Ct. App.1970).

The law is clear that a builder is not liable for latent defects in building materials that are
used and “he is not liable to the owner for the latent defect or liable for the amount of damage to
the building caused by such defect.” 13 Am. Jur. 2d, Building and Construction Contracts § 27
(1997); Wood-Hopkins Contracting Co. v. Masonry Contractors, Inc., 235 So.2d 548 (Fla. Ct. App.1970).

Unless a building owner is able to show that the builder or installer had knowledge of the problems associated with Chinese drywall, he or she may have problems with holding those entities accountable.