Bylsma v. Willey, No. 20140484

CourtSupreme Court of Utah
Writing for the CourtChief Justice Durrant
Citation416 P.3d 595
Parties Richard BYLSMA and Melinda Bylsma, Appellants, v. R.C. WILLEY, a Utah Corporation, Appellee.
Decision Date01 December 2017
Docket NumberNo. 20140484

416 P.3d 595

Richard BYLSMA and Melinda Bylsma, Appellants,
v.
R.C. WILLEY, a Utah Corporation, Appellee.

No. 20140484

Supreme Court of Utah.

Filed December 1, 2017


Daniel F. Bertch, Kevin K. Robson, Salt Lake City, for appellants

Jaryl L. Rencher, Clay W. Stucki, Benjamin Lusty, Salt Lake City, for appellee

Chief Justice Durrant authored the opinion of the Court, in which Justice Durham and Justice Himonas joined.

Associate Chief Justice Lee filed a concurring opinion, in which Justice Pearce joined.

On Direct Appeal

Chief Justice Durrant

Introduction

¶ 1 This appeal requires us to consider whether the Liability Reform Act (LRA), Utah Code sections 78B-5-817 through 823, immunizes passive retailers from products liability claims in cases where the manufacturer is a named party. Richard and Melinda Bylsma asserted claims for strict products liability, breach of warranty, and contract rescission against R.C. Willey. The district court dismissed the tort and warranty claims under the "passive retailer" doctrine as articulated by our court of appeals in Sanns v. Butterfield Ford.1 R.C. Willey then stipulated to liability on the rescission claim and tendered payment of the purchase price. Both parties sought an award of attorney fees, ‘but the district court denied their requests because it concluded that neither party had prevailed.

¶ 2 We conclude that the LRA does not create immunity for retailers, whether "passive" or not, and we therefore overrule our court of appeals' conclusion to the contrary in Sanns. In so doing, we hold that the LRA

416 P.3d 600

does not upend our longstanding precedent that retailers—just as distributors, wholesalers, manufacturers, and any others in the chain of distribution—are strictly liable for breaching their duty not to sell a dangerously defective product. To the contrary, the LRA reveals the legislature's intent to specifically preserve our strict products liability doctrine. We thus harmonize the relevant statutory language, avoid conflating the distinct legal doctrines of strict products liability and negligence, and honor the legislature's intent to retain the essential tenets of our strict products liability doctrine.

¶ 3 We accordingly reject the passive retailer doctrine and reverse the district court's dismissal of the Bylsmas' claims against R.C. Willey for strict products liability and breach of warranty. We also vacate the district court's decision declining to award attorney fees to the Bylsmas, and we remand for proceedings consistent with this opinion.

Background

¶ 4 Melinda Bylsma purchased a reclining chair with a foot-massage attachment from R.C. Willey as a gift for her husband, Richard Bylsma.2 Rather than delivering a soothing massage, the unit crushed his right foot.

¶ 5 The Bylsmas brought suit against R.C. Willey and Human Touch, the alleged manufacturer of the chair. They asserted three claims against R.C. Willey. First, they claimed that the chair was "unreasonably dangerous" in light of the risk of injury it presented. Second, they asserted a claim for breach of implied warranties of merchantability and fitness for a particular purpose under the Uniform Commercial Code (UCC). Finally, they sought rescission of their contract and restitution of the purchase price.

¶ 6 After more than a year of litigation, R.C. Willey moved to dismiss the Bylsmas' tort and warranty claims on the basis of its alleged immunity under the so-called "passive retailer" doctrine recognized in Sanns v. Butterfield Ford.3 The Bylsmas opposed that motion. They challenged the passive retailer doctrine as incompatible with the Liability Reform Act (LRA), Utah Code sections 78B-5-817 through 823, and as infringing their rights under the Open Courts and Uniform Operation of Laws Clauses of the Utah Constitution.

¶ 7 The district court granted R.C. Willey's motion based on the passive retailer doctrine, dismissing the Bylsmas' tort and warranty claims, leaving only the claim for rescission of the contract. R.C. Willey then stipulated to liability on the rescission claim and tendered payment of the purchase price.

¶ 8 Both R.C. Willey and the Bylsmas sought to recover attorney fees under the terms of the security agreement entered into between them. Although that agreement expressly authorized only "costs of collection" incurred by R.C. Willey, the Bylsmas asserted a reciprocal right to fees under Utah Code section 78B-5-826. R.C. Willey opposed the Bylsmas' motion and also filed a cross-motion seeking an award of its own attorney fees. The district court denied the fee requests because it found that neither the Bylsmas nor R.C. Willey qualified as a "prevailing party."

¶ 9 The Bylsmas filed a timely notice of appeal, claiming error in the dismissal of their claims under the passive retailer doctrine and in the district court's refusal to grant their request for attorney fees. We have jurisdiction under Utah Code section 78A-3-102(3)(j).

Standard of Review

¶ 10 The Bylsmas raise two issues on appeal. The first is whether the district court erred in dismissing their tort and warranty claims. "We review a decision granting a motion to dismiss ‘for correctness, granting

416 P.3d 601

no deference to the decision of the district court.’ In so doing, we ‘accept the plaintiff's description of the facts alleged in the complaint to be true, but we need not accept extrinsic facts not pleaded nor need we accept legal conclusions in contradiction to the pleaded facts.’ "4

¶ 11 The second issue is whether the district court erred in denying the Bylsmas' motion for attorney fees under the reciprocal attorney fee statute, Utah Code section 78B-5-826. We review legal questions regarding the availability of attorney fees for correctness.5 Where a statute or contract provides that attorney fees are to be awarded to a "prevailing party," we review a district court's determination of whether a party "prevailed" for an abuse of discretion.6

Analysis

¶ 12 We begin by reversing the district court's dismissal of the Bylsmas' strict products liability and breach of warranty claims. We do so based on our rejection of the court of appeals' conclusion in Sanns v. Butterfield Ford7 and its progeny8 that "passive retailers" are immunized from liability under the LRA in cases where the manufacturer is named in the suit. We correct the Sanns court's misreading of the LRA by noting that, because the statute preserves our strict products liability doctrine, retailers like R.C. Willey—along with all others in a product's chain of distribution—are strictly liable for breaching their duty not to sell a dangerously defective product.9

¶ 13 We then provide guidance to the district court for how to proceed with these claims on remand. In particular, we clarify that the LRA's requirement that the fact-finder apportion "fault," which includes strict liability, does not require apportionment of fault among strictly liable defendants. Instead, the LRA requires that strictly liable defendants who all breached the same duty (a duty not to sell the same dangerously defective product) be treated as a single unit for purposes of fault allocation. We clarify that, to avoid conflating negligence and strict liability, the proper approach is one of "relative causation" rather than "relative fault."

¶ 14 Finally, we address the Bylsmas' argument regarding attorney fees. We vacate the district court's decision not to award attorney fees to the Bylsmas, first because our conclusion about the viability of the Bylsmas' tort and warranty claims necessarily changes the "prevailing party" calculus, but more fundamentally because we conclude that the district court erroneously considered whether the Bylsmas prevailed on claims other than the claim that was eligible for fee-shifting.

I. The District Court Erred in Dismissing the Bylsmas' Tort and Warranty Claims Against R.C. Willey Because the LRA Does Not Create Immunity for Passive Retailers

¶ 15 This case presents our first opportunity to explain the interaction between strict products liability10 and the LRA. We

416 P.3d 602

first discuss the LRA, concluding that both its text and context demonstrate the legislature's intent to retain the essential aspects of our strict products liability doctrine. We then discuss the nature of strict products liability, illuminating the key aspects of that doctrine that must continue to exist if we are to honor the legislative intent to retain it. With these principles in mind, we turn to an assessment of R.C. Willey's argument regarding passive retailer immunity, concluding that the LRA forecloses any such immunity. Finally, we provide guidance for the district court on remand by clarifying that the LRA does not require that the fact-finder apportion fault among strictly liable defendants who are liable for breaching the same duty. Instead, the LRA requires that strictly liable defendants who have breached the same duty be treated as a unit in the apportionment.

A. The Legislature Enacted the LRA to...

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21 practice notes
  • In re Zantac (Ranitidine) Prods. Liab. Litig., MDL NO. 2924
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 11th Circuit. United States District Courts. 11th Circuit. Southern District of Florida
    • December 31, 2020
    ...See Guideone Elite , 420 F.3d at 1326 n.5. Utah products liability law requires product identification. Bylsma v. R.C. Willey , 416 P.3d 595, 604 (Utah 2017) (explaining that liability may only be imposed on parties "involved in the product's chain of distribution"). However, Utah does not ......
  • Raser Techs., Inc. v. Morgan Stanley & Co., No. 20170325
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of Utah
    • August 13, 2019
    ...to dismiss, we construe the facts in the light most favorable to ... the non-moving parties." Bylsma v. R.C. Willey , 2017 UT 85, ¶ 4 n.2, 416 P.3d 595.6 Ned Warner owns and controls plaintiffs Ocean Fund, Maasai, and Warner Investments. These entities collectively owned several million sha......
  • Virgin v. Fireworks of Tilton, LLC, No. 2018-0526
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of New Hampshire
    • August 6, 2019
    ...not be entitled to indemnity from the manufacturer does not bar direct suit by the buyer against the seller"); cf. Bylsma v. R.C. Willey, 416 P.3d 595, 601-02 n.10 & 604 (Utah 2017) (rejecting defense of passive immunity for retail seller of defective product because one of the goals of str......
  • Vineyard Props. of Utah LLC v. RLS Constr. LLC, 20200633-CA
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of Utah
    • December 30, 2021
    ...that courts are to "deem all omissions to be purposeful" (quotation simplified)); cf. Bylsma v. R.C. Willey , 2017 UT 85, ¶ 64 & n.116, 416 P.3d 595 (noting that "the legislature is cognizant of the distinction between indemnity and contribution, and chose to foreclose only the latter," and......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
21 cases
  • In re Zantac (Ranitidine) Prods. Liab. Litig., MDL NO. 2924
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 11th Circuit. United States District Courts. 11th Circuit. Southern District of Florida
    • December 31, 2020
    ...See Guideone Elite , 420 F.3d at 1326 n.5. Utah products liability law requires product identification. Bylsma v. R.C. Willey , 416 P.3d 595, 604 (Utah 2017) (explaining that liability may only be imposed on parties "involved in the product's chain of distribution"). However, Utah......
  • Raser Techs., Inc. v. Morgan Stanley & Co., No. 20170325
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of Utah
    • August 13, 2019
    ...we construe the facts in the light most favorable to ... the non-moving parties." Bylsma v. R.C. Willey , 2017 UT 85, ¶ 4 n.2, 416 P.3d 595.6 Ned Warner owns and controls plaintiffs Ocean Fund, Maasai, and Warner Investments. These entities collectively owned several million shares of ......
  • Virgin v. Fireworks of Tilton, LLC, No. 2018-0526
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of New Hampshire
    • August 6, 2019
    ...be entitled to indemnity from the manufacturer does not bar direct suit by the buyer against the seller"); cf. Bylsma v. R.C. Willey, 416 P.3d 595, 601-02 n.10 & 604 (Utah 2017) (rejecting defense of passive immunity for retail seller of defective product because one of the goals o......
  • Vineyard Props. of Utah LLC v. RLS Constr. LLC, 20200633-CA
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of Utah
    • December 30, 2021
    ...are to "deem all omissions to be purposeful" (quotation simplified)); cf. Bylsma v. R.C. Willey , 2017 UT 85, ¶ 64 & n.116, 416 P.3d 595 (noting that "the legislature is cognizant of the distinction between indemnity and contribution, and chose to foreclose only the latte......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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