First District Reaffirms Principle That Strict Products Liability Does Not Apply to Permanent Improvements to Real Property
In Simmons v. Rave Motion Pictures Pensacola, LLC, et al., 41 Fla. L. Weekly D1939 (Fla. Aug. 22, 2016), the First District Court of Appeal addressed the issue of whether a theater seat was an improvement to real property or a product for purposes of strict products liability.
The doctrine of strict products liability, as a general matter, imposes liability on manufacturers, distributors, suppliers and other individuals/entities that make products which cause injury to the general public. Liability is imposed regardless of whether the manufacturer of the product did everything possible to make sure the defect never happened. This form of no-fault liability is available to the injured party because the manufacturer is in the best position to identify and address defects, and should not be discouraged from doing so. Under Florida law, the principles of strict products liability do not apply to structural improvements to real property, only products.
Strict products liability differs from ordinary negligence, which requires the injured party to show what a reasonable person would do under the same or similar circumstances. Under ordinary negligence, the plaintiff cannot prevail by simply showing a defect occurred and caused injury to plaintiff. To prove negligence, the plaintiff has to show the defendant owed a duty of care to plaintiff. This duty of care requires the defendant to adhere to a certain standard of conduct for the protection of others against risk of harm or injury. Additionally, the plaintiff has to show defendant breached that duty of care, that the breach caused plaintiff’s injuries, that the injury was a foreseeable result of the breach and that plaintiff was harmed or injured as a result of defendant’s conduct.
While watching a movie at the local theater, Simmons was injured when a movie theater seat he was occupying broke due to poor welding at the bottom of the seat. Simmons fell to the floor and suffered bodily injury, which eventually required surgery. As a result, Simmons filed suit against the owner and operator of the movie theater, the manufacturer of the theater seats, the general contractor that purchased and installed the seats and the broker who sold the seats to the general contractor under strict products liability.
On appeal, the general contractor and the broker (the parties present for the appeal) argued the theater seating was bolted into the concrete base of the theater and therefore a permanent improvement and not a product. Simmons argued the exact opposite: that the theater seating was a product because the seat bottom could be disassembled from the chair frame without compromising the floor. Simmons relied on the First District’s decision in Pamperin v. Interlake Companies, Inc., which held that a storage rack capable of being disassembled and resold has the characteristics of a product, not a permanent improvement to real property.
The Court drew a distinction between Pamperin and the situation in Simmons. First, what was actually sold to the movie theater was the theater seating system not the seat bottom. As such, the theater seating system became a fixture to the property. Second, no evidence was introduced by way of expert testimony to show that the seat bottom could be resold in the marketplace. Instead, Simmons’ expert testified to the seat bottom’s removability when maintenance needed to perform routine checks and inspections. As a final point, the Court mentioned that the seat bottom was not sold individually but rather as part of the entire theater seating system.
In addition to distinguishing Pamperin, the Court noted the theater seating system was critical to the theater’s daily operations due to the fact that it was permanently installed at the time the theater was constructed. As the seating system was a structural component of the theater, the Court decided it did not fall within the scope of strict products liability.