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From Products Liability Law Daily, May 2, 2014

Design defect could not be inferred from circumstances surrounding vehicle fire that destroyed owner’s home

By Pamela C. Maloney, J.D.

Homeowners who failed to prove that a defect existed in their vehicle at the time it caught fire could not rely on case law suggesting that the defect and cause could be inferred from evidence that the product malfunctioned, a Florida federal district court ruled, granting the vehicle manufacturer’s motion for summary judgment (O’Bryan v. Ford Motor Co., May 1, 2014, King, J.).

Background. An 8-year-old 2000 Ford Expeditionowned by Roy and Beverly O’Bryan caught fire while it was parked under their home. The fire completely destroyed the couple’s home. The couple filed a strict products liability and negligence against Ford Motor Co, claiming that an allegedly defective speed control deactivation switch in the vehicle caused the fire. The manufacturer moved for summary judgment arguing that the couple failed to prove that a defect existed in the vehicle at the time of fire. The couple countered that they were entitled to rely on the holding in Cassisi v. Maytag Co., 396 So.2d 1140 (Fla. 1st DCA 1981) to establish that the existence of a defect could be inferred from the fact that the vehicle malfunctioned.

Proof of defect. It is well-established that in order to maintain their strict products liability and negligence claims, the couple was required to prove that the vehicle was defective and that the defect was the proximate cause of their injuries. However, after four years of litigation, the couple failed to produce sufficient admissible evidence of either of these elements. There was no physical evidence of the defect as it was undisputed that the switch had been removed more than three and a half years before the fire pursuant to a safety recall. In addition, all five experts, including the couple’s experts, testified that the cause of the fire was "undetermined." The only remaining evidence was the couple’s own lay testimony along with that of a neighbor as to the events that occurred after the fire. There was also testimony of a fire cause and origin expert, who the court determined was not qualified to determine whether a defect did in fact exist in the vehicle. This expert had offered his theory on what might have been the cause of the fire and the existence of the defect in light of the circumstances; the couple failed to offer any additional evidence to support their theory of the defect

Cassisi inference. The court rejected the couple’s alternative argument that the Cassisi inference applied and that the inference shifted the burden of proof to the vehicle manufacturer. Under the Cassisi inference, "evidence of the nature of an accident itself may, under certain circumstances, give rise to a reasonable inference that the product was defective because the circumstances of the product’s failure may be such as to frustrate the ordinary consumer’s expectations of its continued performance." After emphasizing that the inference did not shift the burden of proof, the court determined that there must be sufficient facts pleaded to show proof of a malfunction that occurred during the normal operation of the product. Noting that the inference was most visible in cases in which the product in question was so badly damaged by a malfunction that it was impossible for a plaintiff to point with specificity to the exact condition that caused the accident, the court concluded that those circumstances did not exist in this case. Even though the damage to the vehicle was significant, investigators of the fire determined that although the cause was undetermined, it could have been discovered through additional investigation which was not done. Because the investigators concluded that the cause of the fire was undetermined, the couple failed to meet their burden of proof that a malfunction occurred during normal use. Furthermore, the lay testimony offered by the couple and the neighbor did not amount to sufficient proof that the fire started in the vehicle and therefore, there was no proof that the vehicle was the cause of the fire.

The case number is 12-CV-10052-JLK.

Attorneys: Charles Rene Houssiere III (Houssiere, Durant, & Houssiere, LLP) for Roy O'Bryan. Andrew J. McGuinness (Andrew J. McGuinness, Attorney at Law) and Scott Alan Richman (McDonald Toole Wiggins, PA) for Ford Motor Co.

Companies: Ford Motor Co.

MainStory: TopStory DesignManufacturingNews EvidentiaryNews MotorVehiclesNews FloridaNews

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