Halum v. ZP Passive Safety Systems US, Inc.

Fourth DCA

Halum v. ZP Passive Safety Systems US, Inc.
4th DCA
3/29/23, Chief Judge Klingensmith
Topics: Negligence, Products Liability, Statute of Repose

In 2015, the plaintiff was involved in a motor vehicle that he (through his estate) alleged resulted from a defect in the seat belt buckle. The car was sold to its first user in 2001 and re-sold to the plaintiff in 2004.

The plaintiff sued the seatbelt manufacturer for negligence, strict products liability, and loss of consortium.

The manufacturer raised section 95.031(2)(b), the statute of repose, as a defense and moved for summary judgment. For those that need a refresher on the difference between a statute of limitation and a statute of repose, the DCA explained that in “contrast to a statute of limitations, which procedurally limits a plaintiff’s remedy at some point after the cause of action accrued (i.e., after the defendant breached a duty), a statute of repose abolishes or eliminates an underlying substantive right of action.” In pertinent part, the statute in question provides:

  • (b) An action for products liability under s. 95.11(3) must be begun within the period prescribed in this chapter, with the period running from the date that the facts giving rise to the cause of action were discovered, or should have been discovered with the exercise of due diligence, rather than running from any other date prescribed elsewhere in s. 95.11(3), except as provided within this subsection. Under no circumstances may a claimant commence an action for products liability, including a wrongful death action or any other claim arising from personal injury or property damage caused by a product, to recover for harm allegedly caused by a product with an expected useful life of 10 years or less, if the harm was caused by exposure to or use of the product more than 12 years after delivery of the product to its first purchaser or lessee who was not engaged in the business of selling or leasing the product or of using the product as a component in the manufacture of another product. All products, except those included within subparagraph 1. or subparagraph 2., are conclusively presumed to have an expected useful life of 10 years or less….
  • Any product not listed in subparagraph 1., which the manufacturer specifically warranted, through express representation or labeling, as having an expected useful life exceeding 10 years, has an expected useful life commensurate with the time period indicated by the warranty or label. Under such circumstances, no action for products liability may be brought after the expected useful life of the product, or more than 12 years after delivery of the product to its first purchaser or lessee who was not engaged in the business of selling or leasing the product or of using the product as a component in the manufacture of another product, whichever is later….
  • (d) The repose period prescribed within paragraph (b) is tolled for any period during which the manufacturer through its officers, directors, partners, or managing agents had actual knowledge that the product was defective in the manner alleged by the claimant and took affirmative steps to conceal the defect. Any claim of concealment under this section shall be made with specificity and must be based upon substantial factual and legal support. Maintaining the confidentiality of trade secrets does not constitute concealment under this section.

The manufacturer argued that because 14 years had passed between when the vehicle had been sold to the first owner in 2001 and the date of the accident in 2015, the claim was time-barred.

Plaintiff invoked subsection (d) above, however, alleging that the manufacturer was aware of the defect in 2001 and concealed it from the vehicle’s maker and the National Highway Transportation and Safety Administration. Plaintiff eventually showed knowledge from a manager with authority and responsibility over production, but did not show that an executive-level employee knew of the defect. Mid-level management, the trial court held, did not constitute “officers, directors, partners, or managing agents” under the tolling statute.

Section 95.031 does not define the term “managing agent.” However, Florida courts have expounded on who is—and who is not—a “managing agent” for the purposes of imposing corporate liability for punitive damages based on their acts. Those cases have found a managing agent must be “more than a mid-level employee who has some, but limited, managerial authority.” A “managing agent” under section 95.031(2)(d) must be an individual of such seniority and stature within the corporation or business to have ultimate decision-making authority for the company. So the allegations that middle management knew of the defect did not pass muster for purposes of tolling the statute of repose.

Further, the plaintiff only showed some evidence that the mid-level employees “should have known” about the defect, not that they actually did to conceal it, which was also a requirement of the statute. Summary judgment was affirmed. 

https://supremecourt.flcourts.gov/content/download/864709/opinion/213217_DC05_03292023_ 095939_i.pdf

Terry P. Roberts
Director of Appellate Practice Fischer Redavid PLLC
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