Many South Floridians understand that pools come with risks. Indeed, pool owners are very aware of the dangers associated with falls and drowning. Notwithstanding the importance of these commonplace risks, the pool-related injury at issue in a recent product liability decision from Florida’s Third District Court of Appeal, Dominguez v. Hayward Indus., Inc., was certainly not of a kind anyone would anticipate.
Dominguez arose from the unexpected explosion of a pool filter, which occurred in November 2012. At the time of the explosion, one plaintiff in this case was near the pool, which had been completed in 1999, and he sustained head injuries. He and his wife brought suit against the manufacturer/distributor of the filter, the company that installed the pool and acted as a distributor of the filter, and the pool contractor. The plaintiff asserted claims for strict product liability and negligence against the first two defendants and negligence claims against all of the defendants. The plaintiffs also asserted a loss of consortium claim. The trial court ultimately granted a final judgment in the defendants’ favor, and the plaintiff then filed this appeal.
The Third District affirmed the judgment, but as is often the case, the Court never reached the merits of any of the underlying claims. Instead, the resolution of this case involved a familiar procedural obstacle: a statute of repose. Under Florida law, a plaintiff typically has four years to initiate a product liability case. Section 95.031(2)(b), Florida Statutes. However, these claims are also subject to a 12-year statute of repose, which bars claims related to injuries or deaths caused by a product that has an expected useful life of 10 years or less, unless the product falls into a particular exception. Id. Among those exceptions is one for products that are “improvements to real property.” This statute of repose begins to run from the time the product is delivered or work is completed. Allan & Conrad, Inc. v. University of Central Florida, 961 So. 2d 1083, 1086 (Fla. 5th DCA 2007).
Completion of the pool installation, including the pool filter, concluded more than 12 years prior to the 2012 explosion. Accordingly, the Court needed to determine whether the filter fell within an exception, specifically whether the filter was an improvement to real property. The Third District concluded it did not. The statute does not define “improvement on real property,” but the Court turned to the definition provided by the Florida Supreme Court. See Hillsboro Island House Condominium Apartments, Inc. v. Town of Hillsboro Beach, 263 So. 2d 209, 213 (Fla. 1972). Ultimately, the Third District found that the term does not encompass a product that “maintains its fundamental characteristics when it is connected to real property,” which is commonly known as a “fixture” in property law. Here, the pool filter did not improve on the real property but instead was like a refrigerator, which may be attached to property but still functions as an independent component. Accordingly, since the filter did not fall within this or any other exception to the statute of repose, the Third District concluded that the statute applied and barred the plaintiff’s claims.
Although the propriety of statutes of limitations and repose has been a subject of heated debate among scholars, they are unlikely to ever disappear. Accordingly, anyone who has been injured should take prompt action, when possible, to ensure that his or her claims are not lost by the passage of time. The assistance of experienced counsel can help in both ascertaining what time limitations apply and taking action quickly when a deadline for a particular limitation is impending. The South Florida product liability attorneys at Frankl & Kominsky have represented many injured South Floridians and can provide you with competent assistance with your possible product liability or negligence case. Feel free to contact us for a free consultation if you are interested in learning more about the viability of your claim or the services we provide.