15 January 2020
In an important decision for product liability practitioners handed down last month, the High Court has ruled that consumers cannot circumvent the 10 year longstop limitation period for claims that fall within the remit of the Product Liability Directive (the Directive)1 and Part I of the Consumer Protection Act 1987 (the CPA) by bringing a claim for breach of statutory duty under the safety regulations pursuant to s.41(1) of the CPA.
The Claimants had tried to bring claims for strict liability under the CPA despite being time barred by the 10 year longstop. This decision provides welcome clarity and certainty to manufacturers that consumers will not be able rely on s.41 to overcome the limitation defence.
The claim was brought after a faulty component in a Beko fridge-freezer allegedly caused a fire which tragically resulted in the death of John Wilson, and seriously injured other members of his family.
Beko plc (Beko), responsible for the sale, marketing and distribution of the fridge-freezer, admitted that the fire "was likely on the balance of probabilities" started by the fridge-freezer. Mr Wilson's estate and members of his family brought a claim against Beko for personal injury and insured and uninsured consequential losses arising out of the fire.
Under English Law, s.2(1) of the CPA states that where any damage is caused wholly or partly by a defect in a product, liability rests on the manufacturer2. However, a claim under Part 1 of the CPA must be brought within 10 years from the date at which the producer put the product in circulation.3
This framework reflects the provisions of the Product Liability Directive and "in circulation" is generally understood to mean once the product is placed for sale on the market. Here, the product was supplied to Mr Wilson in 2005 and therefore any claim under Part 1 was out of time.
However, the Claimants alleged that strict liability still applied as Beko had breached the Electrical Equipment (Safety) Regulations 19944 (the EE(S)R), which contains provisions relating to electrical equipment. They argued that Part II of the CPA allows for strict liability claims arising out of a Safety Regulation and brought a claim under s.41(1) of Part V of the CPA which states that:
"An obligation imposed by safety regulations shall be a duty owed to any person who may be affected by a contravention of the obligation and, subject to any provision to the contrary in the regulations and to the defences and other incidents applying to actions for breach of statutory duty, a contravention of any such obligation shall be actionable accordingly." (emphasis added)
As such, the Claimants sought to argue that Beko had breached their duty under the EE(S)R following s.41(1) of the CPA and was therefore strictly liable, despite the 10 year limitation period having expired.
The High Court decided that the Claimant's suggested interpretation of s.41(1) of the CPA did not conform with the Directive.
Under the Marleasing principle5, domestic legislation has to be construed as far as possible to conform with EU Directives. Mr Justice Knowles ruled that the Directive was to provide for a maximal level of harmonisation regarding defective products based upon strict liability and it is not open to Member States to provide for a wider system of protection than that provided for by the Directive – for example, by extending the limitation period.
The Court concluded that the Claimants’ claim fell squarely within the scope of the Directive and Part I of the CPA. It was a claim for personal injury and for non-commercial property damage caused by a defective product.
To read s.41 of the CPA to allow a claim for strict liability would be inconsistent with the Directive, as it would allow the Claimants to circumvent the 10 year limitation period and would also deprive the Defendant of the defences under s. 4 of the CPA.
This is an important decision for product manufacturers. Had the decision been in favour of the Claimants, it could have removed the limitation certainty by potentially allowing claims by consumers during a product's entire shelf life.
We do not yet know whether this decision will be appealed, but as it stands, this provides welcome clarity that consumers cannot rely on Part II and s.41 of the CPA to circumvent the 10 year long stop date.
1 Directive of the Council of the European Communities, dated 25 July 1985, (No 85/374/EEC) on the approximation of the laws, regulations and administrative provisions of the Member States concerning liability for defective products
2 And/or the importer of the product into a Member State from outside the EU, and/or anyone who creates the impression that they are the manufacturer by putting their name, trade mark or other distinguishing mark on the product.
3 See s.11A of the Limitation Act 1980
4 (SI 1994/3260)
5 Case C-106/89, Marleasing SA v La Comercial Internacional de Alimentación  1 CMLR 305)