Who was liable for these three real-world relative humidity claims?

When a wood floor fails because of a relative humidity issue, a common cause of trouble in the industry, someone needs to pay. All the actors begin the blame game in order to protect themselves from liability. The customers point fingers at the installers, the installers at the distributors, and so forth up the chain. But who is ultimately responsible? Here are three such scenarios: the facts surrounding a failed wood floor, who ended up paying and what the law says about who is actually responsible.

1. Instructions to a T

The Facts: A customer hired a general contractor to perform remodeling work, which included installing new wood floors. The GC purchased the flooring material from a lumberyard and hired a flooring installation subcontractor to install the flooring. The installed floor failed and began splitting and cracking. The flooring manufacturer had published installation, maintenance and warranty guidelines (instructions) on its website to be handed out to appropriate parties. The customer admitted being told to monitor relative humidity, but did not receive the instructions or any other specific information about humidity levels. The GC’s “Home Care Manual” provided upon project completion contained no information about RH levels. None of the written agreements between the customer, the GC or the installer disclaimed warranties or liability based on someone else failing to follow installation guidelines or to properly maintain the work or products. The distributor’s packing slips and website did disclaim any warranties other than those provided by the manufacturer.

The Result: The manufacturer declined a warranty claim based on low moisture conditions in the home. The distributor also denied liability based on its published disclaimers on its packing slips and website. The GC, installer and customer ultimately agreed to equally share the costs to tear out and replace the flooring.

The Law: Since the instructions were not followed, the manufacturer was legally justified in denying the claim. The distributor was also legally justified in denying responsibility since its published terms and conditions limited its liability to only those warranties provided by the manufacturer, and the distributor had no direct agreement with the customer. Ultimately, the “buck stops” with the GC, who was hired to supervise and properly perform the work. In most states the GC would be required to provide the customer with all installation, maintenance and warranty guidelines regarding the work. To ensure the products it was installing did not fail, the GC had a responsibility to educate the customer about the required RH levels.

2. Customer’s Cash

The Facts: Several planks began splitting only seven months after an engineered floor was installed. The distributor inspected the floor and noted the RH levels were slightly low but deduced that the splitting was happening because moisture levels in the flooring were too high when manufactured. The customer was provided with no floor care instructions, but was verbally told to “watch the humidity” and did have a properly working humidifier with a new evaporator pad.

The Result: The manufacturer declined a warranty claim, alleging improper moisture conditions when the flooring was installed and that the installer had not allowed the flooring to properly acclimate before installation. However, the installer’s records showed that proper acclimation had occurred. The manufacturer then asserted the customer had failed to properly maintain the correct RH levels, but the facts and expert reports showed it was very unlikely that the homeowner contributed to the problem—the splitting was too severe to have been caused by a homeowner misstep. The manufacturer eventually agreed to replace the flooring, but refused to pay for any labor costs because its published warranties disclaimed these costs. The homeowner ultimately covered the labor costs.

The Law: The manufacturer was liable to replace the product but was legally entitled to disclaim liability for the labor costs. The installer’s contract with the customer disclaimed liability for manufacturer defects. As a result, while seemingly unfair, the customer was forced to pay for the labor to tear out the defective flooring and install the new flooring.

3. Distributor Suffers

The Facts: A distributor in a very dry area of the United States published its own guidelines regarding installing and maintaining wood and engineered flooring in that climate. The suggested RH levels in the distributor’s own guidelines conflicted with the RH ranges published by many of the manufacturers. A floor failed, and the manufacturer denied the warranty claim because its stated RH levels were not maintained. The distributor asserted it was not liable because the customer failed to maintain the product per the manufacturer’s specifications.

The Result: The distributor eventually covered the issue by replacing the product and covering the labor costs.

The Law: This was the correct result based upon these very specific facts. However, the distributor could have avoided legal liability if its guidelines had contained a statement that its suggested parameters were only meant to be general information, were not a substitute for manufacturer specifications, and disclaiming any liability for failure to follow the pertinent manufacturer specifications.

*This article originally appeared in Hardwood Floors magazine