Contributory negligence is the common-law construct whereby any negligence by a plaintiff acts as a total bar to recovery against a negligent tortfeasor. The contributory negligence doctrine has been uniformly criticized as overly harsh, allowing culpable parties to avoid the consequences of their actions, and leaving relatively innocent plaintiffs without recourse. 57A AmJur2d 752, Negligence, § 856. In response, the vast majority of states, including New Jersey, have replaced the contributory negligence doctrine with some form of comparative negligence, whereby the fault of a plaintiff is compared with the negligence of the defendant and may serve to reduce the plaintiff's recovery of damages instead of completely barring the plaintiff's action. Id. See, e.g., Muldovan v. McEachern, 271 Ga. 805, 810 (Ga.,1999). In this way, states have modified the doctrine to achieve results more consistent with modern notions of fairness. The 1973 enactment of New Jersey’s Comparative Negligence Act (the “Act”), N.J.S.A. 2A:15-5.1 to -5.8, adopted this construct, providing that the fault of a plaintiff may be considered in allocating liability among the parties, but may only act as a total bar to recovery if it exceeds the fault of the defendants. Subsequent decisional law has construed the Act broadly, applying it not only to negligence claims, but also to claims sounding in strict liability. See, e.g. Cruz-Mendez v. ISU/Insurance Services of San Francisco, 156 N.J. 556, (N.J.,1999)
Notwithstanding the clear legislative and judicial repudiation of contributory negligence, a recent Appellate Division decision appears to revive that antiquated notion as applied to homeowner claims against manufacturers of defective building components. In Dean v. Barrett Homes, Inc., 406 N.J. Super. 453 (App. Div. 2009), the Appellate Division upheld the application of the “economic loss rule” to shield manufacturers of defective building materials from liability to the purchasers of pre-owned houses that incorporate the materials and sustain physical damage as a result. The economic loss rule, as codified by the New Jersey Product Liability Act, limits the availability of tort remedies to plaintiffs who have suffered personal injury or “physical damage to property other than the product itself.” N.J.S.A. 2A:58C-1(b)(2). (For a more extensive critique of the rule see The Economic Loss Doctrine: A license to sell defective building products?).
Even though the concurring majority in Dean, led by Judge Sabatino, acknowledged that the defective component, in that case—a synthetic stucco product known as Exterior Insulation and Finish System (“EIFS”)—had caused injury to property beyond “the product itself,” the court nevertheless barred plaintiffs’ tort remedies, finding that the unique circumstances of the underlying transaction weighed in favor of a restrictive application of the economic loss rule. Critical to the concurring majority’s analysis was the fact that plaintiffs received a home inspection report, prior to their purchase of the home, disclosing the potential defects in the EIFS:
In my view, [an] innocent home purchaser should be able to recover, under the Product Liability Act, N.J.S.A. 2A:58C-1 to -11 (“PLA”), reasonable compensation from the manufacturer of that defective component for the physical harm the component caused to other portions of the home and to any other property owned by the plaintiff.
In the present case, however, we are not dealing with [an] entirely latent defect, but one that was pointed out to the Deans, both orally and in writing, by their astute home inspector before they purchased the house. I agree with Judge Carchman that, whatever the proper scope of the economic loss doctrine may be, tort principles should not cover those losses in the particular setting of this transaction. Once alerted to the potential risks of the sheathing, the Deans could have insisted on a warranty from the builder to guard against future consequential harms, or demanded that the sheathing be replaced, or walked away from the purchase altogether. They did none of those things. The defect in the EIFS was no longer, with respect to the Deans, latent. Given this particular transactional context, I have no problem in confining plaintiffs to other remedies that are not based in tort or under the PLA.
Dean, supra, at 475, 483 (Sabatino, J., concurring) (emphasis added).
While differing on the issue of whether consequential damage to collateral components of the home constitutes damage to “other property,” Judge Carchman, writing for the court, agreed with the concurring majority that plaintiffs’ opportunity to avoid the loss asserted, and failure to take reasonable precautions to protect their own interests warranted foreclosure of their tort remedies:
We recognize the thoughtful and well-articulated concerns expressed by our concurring colleagues regarding the application of the economic loss rule as a bar to innocent purchasers recovering under the PLA from a manufacturer of a defective component of the home, where that component causes physical damage to other portions of the home; however, that is not the case we have before us on this appeal. As our concurring colleagues observe, plaintiffs, here, had appropriate opportunities to protect themselves from the potential of loss caused by the defective component.
Id. at 472 (emphasis added).
Though couched in terms of the economic loss rule, the effect of the Dean holding is the application of a contributory negligence standard to product liability claims asserted by homeowners against building component manufacturers. Where a homeowner knew or should have known of an injurious product-defect prior to purchase, no recovery may be had in tort for subsequent damage to “other property” caused by the defect. Yet, the New Jersey Legislature and Supreme Court have made clear that a comparative fault standard should govern the analysis of the relative "innocence" and "blameworthiness" of the victim and tortfeasor:
The final issue concerns the effect of plaintiff's comparative negligence on the [defendant's] liability under N.J.S.A. 21:3-5. That issue requires consideration of the Comparative Negligence Act, N.J.S.A. 2A:15-5.1 to -5.8, which provides that a plaintiff's own negligence may be considered in allocating liability among the parties. . . . The Act applies in strict-liability actions. Gennari v. Weichert Co. Realtors, 148 N.J. 582, 608-09, 691 A.2d 350 (1997); see also Suter v. San Angelo Foundry & Mach. Co., 81 N.J. 150, 164 (1979) (holding that Act provides a defense in most strict-liability actions, except in some workplace injury cases in which worker had no meaningful choice whether to encounter risk). A plaintiff's fault is an affirmative defense in a strict-liability action if his or her conduct constitutes an “unreasonable and voluntary exposure to a known risk.” Lewis v. American Cyanamid Co., 155 N.J. 544, 559, 715 A.2d 967 (1998); Cartel Capital Corp. v. Fireco of N.J., 81 N.J. 548, 563, 410 A.2d 674 (1980). To establish an affirmative defense, therefore, the Insurers must prove that plaintiff voluntarily encountered the risk with actual knowledge of the danger. The mere fact that plaintiff was negligent will not suffice.
Id. (emphasis added). See Cepeda v. Cumberland Eng'g Co., Inc., 76 N.J. 152, 185, 386 A.2d 816 (1978) (holding that “contributory negligence in the sense of mere carelessness or inadvertence” is not a defense in strict liability cases), overruled in part on other grounds Suter v. San Angelo Foundry & Mach. Co., 81 N.J. 150, 177, 406 A.2d 140 (1979). Under New Jersey law, even where a manufacturer proves that a consumer failed to take reasonable precautions against a product defect of which he knew or should have known, the result is a mere reduction of the plaintiff's recovery, not a complete bar, unless the jury makes a determination that a majority of fault lies with the plaintiff (a quintessential fact determination). In New Jersey, and in a vast majority of jurisdictions, an injured consumer’s “notice” of a product defect will not foreclose tort remedies unless the manufacturer meets a burden of establishing the consumer’s subjective knowledge of the danger and unreasonable conduct in the face thereof. See Id. See, e.g., Martinez v. Triad Controls, Inc., 593 F.Supp.2d 741 (E.D.Pa.,2009); Anderson v. Four Seasons Equestrian Center, Inc., 852 N.E.2d 576, 582 (Ind.App.,2006); Krajewski v. Enderes Tool Co., Inc., 396 F.Supp.2d 1045, 1052 -1053 (D.Neb.,2005); Warner Fruehauf Trailer Co., Inc. v. Boston, 654 A.2d 1272, 1274 -1275 (D.C.,1995)
Dean’s emphasis on plaintiff homeowners’ “innocence” is particularly problematic given the underlying purpose of the economic loss rule. The rule “defines the boundary between the overlapping theories of tort law and contract law by barring the recovery of purely economic loss in tort, particularly in strict liability and negligence cases.” Dean, supra, at 470 (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). It acts as a shorthand means of determining which duty has been violated by the defendant—that is, was it one that arose solely under contract, or did it also arise incident to the common-law obligation to avoid unreasonable risks of harm to persons or property? See Id. The Dean court essentially looked to the purchaser's fault to determine the source of a manufacturer's breached duty. This seems incongruous. The fact of the Deans’ "notice" does not change the quality of the manufacturer's culpable conduct, which presumably occurred long before plaintiffs purchased their home. The notice issue would have been more appropriately addressed in terms of comparative fault. While the Supreme Court did sanction an examination of unique transactional circumstances in applying the economic loss rule in Alloway v. General Marine Industries, L.P., 149 N.J. 620, 629 (1997), the purpose of that examination is to avoid an overly restrictive application of the rule, not to facilitate it.