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Thursday, January 27, 2022

Mass. high court affirms 'component parts doctrine' in HVAC spat, unless maker was culpable in defect

Historical interior of the William Bliss House, 25 Exeter, Back Bay in Boston,
constructed 1882-1884: today the private home of the Nemirovsky family.
Source: Historic New England. 
In a December decision, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) reaffirmed the defense-friendly "component parts doctrine" in product liability.

The case arose from a faulty HVAC system installed in plaintiff's 22,000-square-foot Boston home. Evaporator coils in the system repeatedly failed and required replacement, costing the plaintiff hundreds of thousands of dollars, and then substantially more to replace the system in its entirety.  The coils themselves were not defective, but a defect in the system's Styrofoam drain pan caused the coils to fail prematurely.  The statute of limitations precluded plaintiffs' claims based on sale of the HVAC system, but not claims based on the later sale of replacement coils.

Sensibly, the widely accepted "component parts doctrine" ordinarily relieves from liability the manufacturer of non-defective component parts.  However, the SJC explained, citing the Third Restatement, "a component manufacturer may be liable, even if the component itself is not defective, if the component manufacturer is 'substantially involved' in the integration of the component into the design of the integrated product, the integration of the component causes the integrated product to be defective, and the defect in the integrated product causes the harm."

The Superior Court erred, the SJC concluded, in not applying the general rule of the component parts doctrine.  The Superior Court had reasoned that the coil manufacturer could be liable because the coils were made specifically for integration into the defective HVAC system and had no standalone functionality.  In other words, the product failure was foreseeable to the coil manufacturer.  But there are no such exceptions to the component parts doctrine, the SJC held.  Intended integration is not the same as the "substantial involvement" contemplated by the Restatement rule.  And standalone functionality is not the test to shield a component maker from liability.

The component parts doctrine is widely accepted in the states.  There was some hand-wringing over the vitality of the doctrine in 2016 when the California Supreme Court held the doctrine inapplicable when "injury was allegedly caused directly by the [defendant's] materials themselves when used in a manner intended by the suppliers."  In that case, a metal foundry worker had developed lung disease, he alleged, as a result of fumes and dust generated by the foundry's use of the defendant's materials in manufacturing.  But it was the defendant's materials that caused the disease, even if they had been physically transformed by the foundry.  And the specific intentionality attached to the use of the materials closely resembled substantial involvement, tightening the lasso of foreseeability.  The decision hardly unsettled the component parts doctrine.

Law students should take care not to confuse the component parts doctrine with "the single integrated product rule."  That rule determines when damage to an integrated product can be said to satisfy the injury requirement of product liability.  Standalone functionality is relevant to the analysis, but not necessarily dispositive.  If a component part is intended for integration into a larger product, and a defect in the component causes damage to the larger product, but no damage beyond the larger product, then the buyer of the defective component cannot meet the injury requirement to sue in product liability.  The theory of the rule is that the buyer, anticipating the integration, should protect itself in contract and warranty, rather than depending on tort law.  The component parts doctrine rather precludes component manufacturer liability for a non-defective integrated component upon the theory that the component buyer, responsible for the integration, is in the better position to ensure the safety of the integrated product.

In the Massachusetts case, the SJC's decision vacated a $10.6m award.  The jury had awarded just under $3.4m in its verdict.  Massachusetts does not allow punitive damages at common law, but an expansive statute protecting consumers against misrepresentation, "chapter 93A," subsumes much of what would be separate product liability claims in other jurisdictions and can hit defendants with punishing awards of damage multipliers and attorney fees.  Under 93A, the trial court had awarded double damages and attorney fees against defendant Daikin North American for its "willful and knowing" misrepresentation.  Daikin NA might not be off the hook entirely, as the SJC ordered a reexamination of its culpability on remand, to disentangle product liability based on defect from product liability based on culpable misrepresentation.

The case is Nemirovsky v. Daikin North America, LLC, No. SJC-13108 (Dec. 16, 2021).  Justice Dalila Wendlandt wrote the unanimous opinion.

 Ahh, rich people problems....

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