• Fla. Court Holds Conveyor Is Structural Improvement to Real Property, Precluding Strict Liability
  • May 20, 2008 | Author: Barbara Fernandez
  • Law Firm: Hinshaw & Culbertson LLP - Miami Office
  • Plaza v. Fisher Development, Inc., 971 So. 2d 918 (Fla. 3d DCA 2007)

    The Florida appellate court recently held that a conveyor system is a structural improvement to real property, not a product, precluding strict liability. The issue was one of first impression. Plaintiff in the case, a Pottery Barn employee, alleged that he was injured as a result of falling onto a conveyor system at a Pottery Barn store. Plaintiff sued Fisher Development System, Inc., the general contractor hired by Pottery Barn to construct the store, for strict liability and negligence. He alleged that the subject conveyor was defective when it left Fisher’s possession and that it was installed in a negligent manner.

    Fisher argued that the conveyor was a structural improvement to real property, not a product, and that Florida law recognized that principles of strict liability are not applicable to structural improvements to real property. As to the negligence count, Fisher argued that the allegedly defective conditions were clearly patent, and that under the Slavin doctrine, where the defects causing injury are patent, a contractor cannot be held liable for injuries sustained by third parties that occurred after the contractor completed its work, and the owner of the property accepted the contractor’s work. Plaza, 971 So. 2d at 919-920 (citing Slavin v. Kay, 108 So. 2d 462 (Fla. 1959)). The trial court granted summary judgment on both counts in favor of Fisher.

    The court explained that strict liability should be imposed only when the manufacturer places a product on the market, knowing that it is to be used without inspection for defects, and that item proves to have a defect that causes injury to a human being. Plaza, 971 So. 2d at 920 (citing West v. Caterpillar Tractor Co., 336 So. 2d 80 (Fla. 1976)). This doctrine has been expanded to others in the distributive chain including retailers, wholesalers and distributors. Plaza, 971 So. 2d at 920 (citing Samuel Friedland Family Enters. v. Amoroso, 630 So. 2d 1067, 1068 (Fla. 1994). The court further noted that while there is no Florida case law addressing whether a conveyor system is a product or a structural improvement to real property, courts in other jurisdictions have concluded that the subject conveyors systems before them were structural improvements to real property. Plaza, 971 So. 2d at 922 (citing McCormick v. Columbus Conveyor Co., 522 Pa. 520, 564 A. 2d 907 (1989); Hilliard v. Lummus Co., 834 F.2d 1352 (7th Cir. 1987); Hill v. Bechtel Corp., 107 F.3d 866, 1997 WL 86029 (4th Cir. 1997); and Hidalgo v. Fagen, Inc., 206 F.3d 1013 (10th Cir. 2000)).

    The court noted that the subject conveyor belt was installed when the Pottery Barn store was constructed by Fisher, and that the conveyor was affixed to a stretcher that had an electrical system, which was affixed to the building. The court concluded, “[t]hus, it is clear that the subject conveyor is ‘an integral part of’ Pottery Barn’s operation.” Accordingly, the court held that, as a matter of law, the conveyor was a structural improvement to real property, not a product. As Florida law recognizes that principles of strict liability are not applicable to structural improvements to real property, the court affirmed the grant of summary judgment in favor of Fisher. The court further held that because the undisputed material facts demonstrated that, as a matter of law, the alleged defects were patent, and that the injury occurred after Fisher completed its work on the Pottery Barn store, which the owner accepted, the trial court correctly entered summary judgment in favor of Fisher under the Slavin doctrine as to the negligence count.