Arizona Supreme Court Rules Against Joint & Several Liability in Strict Product Liability Cases

The availability of joint and several liability is a long-standing tort tradition in jurisdictions across the county. In 1984, this changed in Arizona with the passage of the Uniform Contribution Among Tortfeasors Act ("UCATA"). Among other provisions, UCATA established a comparative fault system in which multiple tortfeasors are assigned and responsible for their own respective shares of the total liability. It also permitted a jointly liable defendant to seek contribution from other tortfeasors in the event that he pays more than his share of the common liability.

It hasn't been clear, however, to which torts the system of comparative fault was intended to apply. Then the Arizona Supreme Court decided State Farm v. Premier Manufactured Systems, Inc., 172 P.3d 410 (Ariz. 2007), addressing the application of comparative fault in strict product liability cases. Essentially, there were two tortfeasors in this case: the manufacturer and the distributor. Each was respectively responsible for 25% and 75% of the total liability but, unfortunately, the main tortfeasor had taken the opportunity to go out of business. Naturally, State Farm attempted to hold the manufacturer 100% liable under the doctrine of joint and several liability.

The Arizona Supreme Court disagreed with State Farm's position. It held that UCATA applied to strict product liability cases as well, largely because there was nothing codified in Arizona statutes that suggested otherwise. Accordingly, unless one of the following three exceptions applies (Ariz. Rev. Stat. § 12-2506), comparative fault is the apportionment system applicable in strict product liability cases:

1. Both the party and the other person were acting in concert.

2. The other person was acting as an agent or servant of the party.

3. The party's liability for the fault of another person arises out of a duty created by the federal employers' liability act, 45 United States Code section 51.

The author notes that some jurisdictions have elected to impose joint and several liability in product liability instances where one or more of the joint tortfeasors has become insolvent. This is not the case in Arizona however, as the Court in Premier Manufactured explicitly held that "under this system of several-only liability, plaintiffs, not defendants, bear the risk of insolvent joint tortfeasors."