Can a subsequent purchaser pursue construction defect claims relating to the original construction of the property? This was the threshold issue on a motion for summary judgment by a drywall manufacturer against a subsequent purchaser of a home in Karpel v. Knauf Gips KG, 2022 WL 4366946 (S.D. Fla. 2022). This matter deals with the defective Chinese drywall that was installed in homes years ago. The plaintiffs, which were subsequent purchasers of a home, sued the manufacturer of the defective drywall for various theories including negligence, negligence per se, strict liability, breach of express and/or implied warranty, private nuisance, unjust enrichment, and Florida’s Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act.
The trial court noted, from the onset, that Florida does NOT have a subsequent purchaser rule that prohibits subsequent purchasers from asserting construction defect claims. With this consideration in mind, the trial court went through the claims the plaintiff, as a subsequent purchaser, asserted against the manufacturer to determine whether they were viable claims as a matter of law.
The trial court found that a subsequent purchaser could sue in negligence. “Florida courts have long allowed subsequent purchasers to sue for negligence including in construction defect litigation.” Karpel, supra, at *2.
Negligence Per Se and Strict Liability Claims
The trial court held that the plaintiff’s negligence per se and strict liability claims were duplicative. Both could not stand; for this reason, the court entered summary judgment as to the duplicative negligence per se claim. “Strict liability means negligence as a matter of law or negligence per se, the effect of which is to remove the burden from the user of proving specific acts of negligence.” Karpel, supra, at *3 (quotation and citation omitted).
A subsequent purchaser could pursue a strict liability claim against a manufacturer. “[A] manufacturer is strictly liable in tort when an article he places on the market, knowing that it is to be used without inspection for defects, proves to have a defect that causes injury to a human being.” Karpel, supra, at *4 (quotation and citation omitted).
Even Section 402A of the Second Restatement of Torts, adopted by Florida’s Supreme Court, provides: “(1) One who sells any product in a defective condition unreasonably dangerous to the user or consumer or to his property is subject to liability for physical harm caused to the ultimate user or consumer, or to his property, if (a) the seller is engaged in the business of selling such product, and (b) it is expected to and does reach the user or consumer without substantial change in the condition in which it is sold.” Karpel, supra, at *4.
There are, however, limits on strict liability.
“First, Florida disallows recovery in tort where plaintiffs only claim economic losses such as ‘damages for inadequate value, costs of repair, and replacement of the defective product, or consequent loss of profits—without any claim of personal injury or damage to other property.” Karpel, supra, at *4 (citation omitted).
“Second, Florida courts will disallow recovery for strict liability where the purchaser was subject to the common law doctrine of caveat emptor.” Karpel, supra, at *4.
Thus, a subsequent purchaser’s strict liability claim could be pursued against a manufacturer provided such damages are not barred by the economic loss rule or the doctrine of caveat emptor (which applies to commercial property and property purchased at judicial auction sales). Karpel, supra, at *4.
Breach of Implied Warranty
The trial court found that a subsequent purchaser could NOT sue a manufacturer for breach of implied warranty. “[I]t is abundantly clear that in cases like these, where no contractual relationship between a subsequent purchaser and a manufacturer exists, the former’s recourse is a claim for strict liability.” Karpel, supra, at *4.
Breach of Express Warranty
While a contractual relationship is typically required for breach of express warranty, this requirement is relaxed if the express warranty is intended to benefit subsequent purchasers. “A manufacturer’s liability for breach of an express warranty derives from, and is measured by, the terms of that warranty.” Karpel, supra, at *4 (quotations and citation omitted). However, in this case, plaintiff’s breach of express warranty claim failed because the plaintiff never introduced any express warranty into the record.
The trial court held that the subsequent purchaser could NOT pursue a private nuisance claim against the manufacturer. To sustain a private nuisance claim, the plaintiff must prove that the defendant’s maintenance of the nuisance was the proximate cause of the plaintiff’s damages. Karpel, supra, at *8. “The Plaintiffs’ ownership and current control over the drywall conclusively forecloses them from arguing that the Defendants actively “maintain” the ‘nuisance’ they complain of.” Id.
The trial court held that the subsequent purchaser could NOT pursue an unjust enrichment claim against the manufacturer. An unjust enrichment claim requires the plaintiff to prove that the plaintiff conferred a direct benefit on the defendant. “The Plaintiffs conferred no direct benefit on the Defendant.” Karpel, supra, at *8 (finding that plaintiffs, as subsequent purchasers, obtained their homes from previous owners so the plaintiffs conferred no direct financial benefit on the manufacturer).
Florida’s Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act (FDUTPA)
The trial court found that a subsequent purchaser could theortetically pursue a FDUTPA claim. “Because the law is clear that a plaintiff need not have actually relied on the purported deceptive or unfair practice, the Court’s analysis need not go further….The Plaintiffs’ status as subsequent purchasers does not foreclose them from arguing that the Defendants’ practices violated FDUTPA.” Karpel, supra, at *9.
However, the trial court noted that actual damages under FDUTPA may implicate the economic loss rule because actual damages under the statute “are the difference in the market value of the product or service in the condition in which it was delivered and its market value in the condition in which it should have been delivered according to the contract of the parties.” Karpel, supra, at *9 (quotation and citation omitted). For this reason, the court ordered the plaintiff and defendant to submit supplemental briefing because if the economic loss rule is implicated, the FDUTPA claim will fail (due to the same limitations relating to the strict liability claim).
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