The economic loss doctrine prohibits a party, which is seeking only damages for economic loss, from recovering those damages pursuant to a tort cause of action. Under the doctrine, economic losses are the damages suffered by a party, other than damages for personal injury or property damage to “other” property. Here is an example of the application of the economic loss doctrine:
- Plaintiff bought 1,000 widgets from Defendant
- The widgets all malfunctioned and were virtually useless because Defendant defectively manufactured them
- Plaintiff’s losses include the cost of the widgets and profits it lost from the anticipated resell of the widgets
- Under the economic loss doctrine, the Plaintiff can recover under breach of contract and breach of warranty causes of action, but cannot recover under tort causes of action for misrepresentation or products liability
If, in the above example, one of the widgets, because of a defect, had caused personal injury to a warehouse worker of Plaintiff or had burned down Plaintiff’s warehouse, Plaintiff could recover, under tort theories, for the damages caused by that widget because they were for personal injuries or to “other property” (property other than the widgets).
The purpose of the doctrine is to preserve the boundaries between tort and contract law, or, as it has been put: To keep contract law from drowning in a sea of tort law. Another principle underpinning the doctrine was stated as follows by a Tennessee court: “Courts should be particularly skeptical of business plaintiffs who – having negotiated an elaborate contract or having signed a form when they wish they had not – claim to have a right in tort.”
The economic loss doctrine, as it exists in Tennessee, took a new twist based on a recent decision of the Court of Appeals of Tennessee in the case of Milan Supply Chain Solutions, Inc. v. Navistar, Inc. In that case, the trial court held that Tennessee’s economic loss doctrine did not apply to fraud claims. The court of appeals, at least on the facts before it, disagreed and reversed. The case is a very significant case dealing with a very significant defense that is sure to become even more litigated in commercial disputes in Tennessee courts in the coming years.