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Horizontal Privity

15 January, 2016 - 09:33

Suppose Carl Consumer buys a new lamp for his family’s living room. The lamp is defective: Carl gets a serious electrical shock when he turns it on. Certainly Carl would be covered by the implied warranty of merchantability: he’s in direct privity with the seller. But what if Carl’s spouse Carlene is injured? She didn’t buy the lamp; is she covered? Or suppose Carl’s friend David, visiting for an afternoon, gets zapped. Is David covered? This gets to horizontal privity, noncontracting parties who suffer damages from defective goods, such as nonbuyer users, consumers, and bystanders. Horizontal privity determines to whose benefit the warranty “flows”—who can sue for its breach. In one of its rare instances of nonuniformity, the UCC does not dictate the result. It gives the states three choices, labeled in Section 2-318 as Alternatives A, B, and C.

Alternative A says that a seller’s warranty extends “to any natural person who is in the family or household of his buyer or who is a guest in his home” provided (1) it is reasonable to expect the person suffering damages to use, consume, or be affected by the goods and (2) the warranty extends only to damages for personal injury.

Alternative B “extends to any natural person who may reasonably be expected to use, consume, or be affected by the goods, and who is injured in person by breach of the warranty.” It is less restrictive than the first alternative: it extends protection to people beyond those in the buyer’s home. For example, what if Carl took the lamp to a neighbor’s house to illuminate a poker table: under Alternative B, anybody at the neighbor’s house who suffered injury would be covered by the warranty. But this alternative does not extend protection to organizations; “natural person” means a human being.

Alternative C is the same as B except that it applies not only to any “natural person” but “to any person who is injured by breach of the warranty.” This is the most far-reaching alternative because it provides redress for damage topropertyas well as for personal injury, and it extends protection to corporations and other institutional buyers.

One may incidentally note that having three different alternatives for when third-party nonpurchasers can sue a seller or manufacturer for breach of warranty gives rise to unintended consequences. First, different outcomes are produced among jurisdictions, including variations in the common law. Second, the great purpose of the Uniform Commercial Code in promoting national uniformity is undermined. Third, battles over choice of law—where to file the lawsuit—are generated.

UCC, Section 2A-216, provides basically the same alternatives as applicable to the leasing of goods.