• Aftermarket Component Part Manufacturers' Duty to Warn in Florida
  • January 31, 2011 | Author: Sean M. McDonough
  • Law Firm: Wilson Elser Moskowitz Edelman & Dicker LLP - Orlando Office
  • Practitioners throughout the country are being faced with a relatively new area of the law regarding component part liability: specifically, the “duty to warn” for manufacturers that supply aftermarket or replacement component parts, versus the duty to warn for the original-equipment or finished-product manufacturers.

    For example, assume that a woman wanted to upgrade the OEM rims on her vehicle. OEM (original equipment manufacturer) refers to a manufacturer that produces equipment from component parts obtained from other manufacturers. The woman purchases aftermarket rims from a distributor who also installs the rims on her vehicle. The rims are not compatible with her specific vehicle, which diminishes the vehicle’s handling capabilities. As a result, the woman gets into a rollover accident and sustains serious injuries. Will the aftermarket rim manufacturer be liable for failing to warn the woman that its rims were not compatible with the specific year, make and model of her vehicle? 

    As another example, suppose that a man wants to upgrade the engine on his old boat. He purchases a new motor with more power. The weight of his boat in conjunction with the extra power of the new motor causes a serious boating accident. Will the manufacturer of the boat motor be liable for failing to warn the man about how the generic motor could pose a danger for his specific boat?  

    These hypothetical situations boil down to one narrow issue: does a replacement-part manufacturer have a duty to warn the end user about how its part may affect the final product in which it is integrated. The answer to this question depends on whether a jurisdiction applies Restatement (Second) of Torts or Restatement (Third) of Torts. This article seeks to explain the varying implications of these two restatements by using illustrations from Florida courts that address the issue.

    A Brief History

    Restatement (Second) of Torts was adopted by the American Law Institute (ALI) in 1964. For more than 30 years, it has been the backbone of strict product liability law across the nation. Restatement (Second) of Torts § 402A established that a manufacturer is strictly liable if its product was sold in a “defective condition unreasonably dangerous to the user.” Unfortunately, § 402A did not provide any details with respect to a component-part manufacturer’s duty to warn. As a result of the ambiguity, the jurisdictions that implement § 402A have not interpreted its provisions in a uniform way and have created varying standards for strict product liability.

    Restatement (Second) has been guiding Florida’s product liability law since the landmark case of West v. Caterpillar1 in 1976. The Florida Supreme Court has interpreted § 402A to stand for the proposition that component-part manufacturers had the same duty to warn as the distributors and final-product manufacturers.2 Florida courts have held that the entities within the chain of distribution “who profit from the sale or distribution of a particular product to the public, rather than an innocent person injured by it, should bear the financial burden of even an undetectable product defect.”3 Underlying this philosophy is the premise that parties in the chain of distribution are in a much stronger position to make sure that products sold are safe and free from defects.4

    In 1997, ALI approved the final draft of the Restatement of the Law Third of Torts: Products Liability (Restatement (Third)). Section 5 of the Restatement (Third) is entitled, “Liability of Commercial Seller or Distributor of Product Components for Harm Caused by Products Into Which Components Are Integrated.” It states:

    The manufacturer/seller of a component part may be held liable, but only under limited circumstances:

    One engaged in the business of selling or otherwise distributing product components who sells or distributes a component is subject to liability for harm to persons or property caused by a product into which the component is integrated if:

    (a) the component is defective in itself, as defined in this Chapter, and the defect causes the harm; or

    (b)(1) the seller or distributor of the component substantially participates in the integration of the component into the design of the product; and

    (b)(2) the integration of the component causes the product to be defective, as defined in this Chapter; and

    (b)(3) the defect in the product causes the harm.

    Comment a. to § 5 provides:

    As a general rule, component sellers should not be liable when the component itself is not defective as defined in this Chapter. If the component is not itself defective, it would be unjust and inefficient to impose liability solely on the ground that the manufacturer of the integrated product utilizes the component in a manner that renders the integrated product defective. Imposing liability would require the component seller to scrutinize another’s product which the component seller has no role in developing. This would require the component seller to develop sufficient sophistication to review the decisions of the business entity that is already charged with responsibility for the integrated product.

    So generally, Section 5 of Restatement (Third) would relieve a component-part manufacturer of liability if (a) the component part was not defective, or (b) the component-part supplier played no role in designing the finished product. When the replacement part is one that can be integrated into different sizes, shapes and varieties of a finished product, the replacement-part manufacturer is not usually playing a role in designing the finished product. In those cases, Section 5 of Restatement (Third) supports the concept that a replacement-part manufacturer is not responsible for warning a customer of the effect the replacement part can have on the finished product.

    The Evolution of Component Part Liability in Florida

    Florida courts did not consider Restatement (Third) until 2005, in the case of Kohler Co. v. Marcotte, 907 So.2d 596 (Fla. App. 3d Dist. 2005). The plaintiffs in Kohler brought a product liability action on behalf of their child against a manufacturer of an engine that was installed in a lawn mower, after the child’s hand was injured by a rotating plastic air-intake screen on the mower. The parents asserted claims of strict liability, failure to warn, and negligence.5  Evidence at trial established that the defendant’s engine was incorporated into the lawn mower by the lawn mower’s manufacturer. The evidence also established that the defendant was not involved in the installation or integration of its engine into the lawn mower. 

    The defendant’s motion for directed verdict was denied, and the jury returned a verdict finding against the defendant engine manufacturer. On appeal, the District Court reversed, and held that the component manufacturer could not be held strictly liable for the child’s injuries, because its generically designed engine was not defective in itself, and the component manufacturer took no part in integrating the engine into the mower or reviewing the overall mower design for safety.6 The Kohler court quoted the Comment a. to Section 5 of the Restatement (Third) of Torts: Products Liability (1997), which reasoned that “[i]mposing liability would require the component seller to scrutinize another’s product which the component seller has no role in developing.”7

    The Kohler court cited to Childress v. Gresen Mfg. Co., 888 F.2d 45 (6th Cir.1989), which reasoned that imposing a duty to warn on component-part manufacturers is against public policy for at least two reasons: “it would encourage the component manufacturer to remain ignorant of the final design, or, alternatively, it would force it to hire experts in each client’s fields of business in order to evaluate the safety of other manufacturers’ products ... extending the duty to make a product safe to the manufacturer of a non-defective component part would be tantamount to charging a component part manufacturer with knowledge that is superior to that of the completed product manufacturer.”8

    However, not all Florida courts have embraced Restatement (Third). More recently, in McConnell v. Union Carbide Corp., 937 So.2d 148 (Fla. 4th DCA 2006), the court considered the Restatement (Third)’s definition of “defective,” where the plaintiff contended that he contracted asbestosis from working with a product that contained processed asbestos. Ultimately, the court chose to follow the definition set forth in Restatement (Second), and noted that the Restatement (Third) “has not been adopted in Florida.” Apparently, the court failed to consider the Third District Court of Appeal ruling in Kohler.

    The Third DCA reiterated its approval of Restatement (Third) as it related to product liability issues in Argrofollajes S.A. v. E. I. Dupont DeNemours & Co., Inc., 2009 FLW 4828975 (Fla. 3rd DCA, December 16, 2009) (Section 2 related to use of risk-utility/risk-benefit test). The Florida Supreme Court has yet to address the application of Section 5, Restatement (Third). 

    Conclusion

    While the Restatement (Third) is instructive on many issues in product liability cases, including component part liability, few states have adopted it. For the reasons set forth above, plaintiff attorneys throughout the country are lobbying to preserve the antiquated principle of Restatement (Second). From a defense standpoint, Restatement (Third) benefits manufacturers, especially those that sell aftermarket replacement parts to be integrated into final products.

     

    1West v. Caterpillar, 336 So.2d 80, 84, 87 (Fla. 1976).

    2Samuel Friedland Family Enterprises v. Amoroso, 630 So.2d 1067, 1068(Fla.1994); see also Mobley v. South Florida Beverage Corp., 500 So.2d 292(Fla. 3d DCA 1986).

    3North Miami General Hospital, Inc. v. Goldberg, 520 So.2d 650, 652 (Fla. 3d DCA 1988).

    4Samuel Friedland Family Enterprises, 630 So.2d at 1068.

    5Kohler Co. v. Marcotte, 907 So.2d 596, 597 (Fla. App. 3d Dist. 2005).

    6Id. at 598-599.

    7Id. at 598. The manufacturer of the subject vehicle, Toyota, did warn in the owner’s manual of the dangers of not using original equipment tires and wheels on the subject vehicle.

    8Id.