Florida Court of Appeal Allows Boat Retailer to Bring Third Party Claim Against Manufacturers

The Second District Court of Appeal recently ruled in a case regarding personal injuries sustained in a flash explosion on a boat. The case arose when a retailer sold the boat to a couple and later performed repairs. There was a flash explosion on the boat and according to the couple, it happened because of a leak in the fuel pump.

The couple filed a complaint against the retailer for negligence and strict liability, claiming that the retailer failed to properly service, repair and inspect the boat and failed to warn them of the defect. They also asserted claims for negligence and strict liability against the boat manufacturer, the pump manufacturer, and the engine manufacturer alleging that there were failures to warn them of the defect and that they allowed the defect to pass through their shops undetected.

The retailer filed an answer and affirmative defense in 2011, before the plaintiffs’ depositions were taken. Later that year, they served notice that they would drop the various manufacturing defendants without prejudice, but did not file an amended complaint or withdraw the allegation of a defective pump.

The following year, the retailer tried to file a third-party complaint against the dismissed manufacturing defendants, claiming that the couple had sued it on the basis that it had sold them a boat with a defective pump. It claimed that it hadn’t changed the pump, engine or boat and that if it were liable, its liability would be vicarious or secondary to that of the dismissed manufacturing defendants. The retailer asked for contribution from the manufacturers.

The couple responded that they dropped the manufacturing defendants in order to streamline the case and bringing them back in would unnecessarily use judicial resources. It also asserted that general maritime law governed the case. Under general maritime law, indemnity may not be sought against third parties until damages are paid based on vicarious liability for them. The couple argued that it hadn’t filed claims based on vicarious liability, that the retailer hadn’t paid any damages, that the jury might find the retailer actively negligent, and that the retailer denied any wrongful conduct and therefore its contribution claims were not ripe (ready to sue under).

The circuit court denied the retailer’s motion to file a third party complaint against the manufacturing defendants without citing any factual or legal reasons. The retailer asked the appellate court to hear the issue.

The appellate court reasoned that the retailer could be exposed to an inconsistent outcome in an independent action against the manufacturing defendants that had been dismissed. The manufacturing defendants would not be bound by the jury’s findings in the instant case. Defendants are liberally allowed to bring third party claims for indemnity with the goal of bringing all interested parties into the same action. They do not have to wait until they’ve paid damages.

The appellate court also noted a long line of cases that allowed a nonnegligent party to seek indemnity against a manufacturer of a defective product that injures the person to whom that party is responsible.

If you or a loved one has experienced personal injuries due to a boat accident, call the experienced South Florida personal injury and products liability attorneys at Friedman, Rodman and Frank for a free, confident consultation at (877) 488-8585.


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