The Arizona Supreme Court recently held that Arizona’s 1987 abolition of joint and several liability extends to strict products liability actions, meaning that liability is several only and fault must be apportioned among tortfeasors even in cases involving strict liability. State Farm Ins. Cos. v. Premier Manufactured Systems, Inc., No. 06-0338-PR (Ariz. Dec. 3, 2007).
Premier involved an insured homeowner who discovered that a leak in his water filtration system had damaged his real and personal property. One company had assembled, packaged, and sold the water filtration system, which consisted of a series of filters inside plastic canisters linked by tubing, while the plastic canisters were manufactured by a separate entity and sold to the assembler. The homeowner’s insurer paid the homeowner for his damages due to the leak. As subrogee for its insured, the insurer then sued the assembler and the manufacturer, alleging that each was strictly liable in tort for distributing a defective product.
The manufacturer failed to respond to the complaint and a default judgment was entered against it. The insurer then argued in a subsequent motion for summary judgment that the assembler and manufacturer were jointly and severally liable for 100% of the homeowner’s damages. The assembler argued, and the trial court agreed, that under the Arizona Uniform Contribution Among Tortfeasor’s Act (“UCATA”), A.R.S. §§12-2501 to 12-2509 (2003), the defendants’ liability was several only and that the statute required allocation of fault between the assembler and the manufacturer. The court of appeals affirmed.
On appeal to the state supreme court, the insurer advanced several arguments in support of its position argued that the general abolition of joint and several liability was not intended to apply to parties strictly liable in tort for distributing a defective product. The Court disagreed, relying on the plain language of the 1987 enactment to the UCATA (the “Enactment”), which establishes a system of comparative fault, making each tortfeasor responsible for paying his or her percentage of fault and no more.
As evidenced by the result in this case, under a system of pure several-only liability, plaintiffs, not defendants, bear the risk of insolvent joint tortfeasors even in the context of strict liability.