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From Products Liability Law Daily, December 4, 2013

Fair operator not strictly liable for defective candle sold by a fair vendor

By Linda Panszczyk, J.D.

An Illinois appellate court upheld summary judgment in favor of a fair operator on a strict product liability claim where the defendant was not involved in the manufacture of a defective candle sold by a vendor at the fair’s marketplace. Further, the court upheld summary judgment in favor of the fair operator on negligence claims where the vendor who made and sold the defective candle was not an employee or agent of the defendant, and the defendant did not voluntarily undertake the duty of evaluating the safety of products sold by vendors at the fair (Grace v. Bristol Renaissance FaireDecember 2, 2013, Connors, J.).

Background. Plaintiff Hillary Grace was badly burned on her hands by a flammable gel candle that she purchased from a vendor several months earlier at the Bristol Renaissance Faire. Debbie Alesia, the vendor who personally made and sold the candle at the Faire’s marketplace, was not a Faire employee but, instead, paid a flat fee for the right to sell her candles at a booth at the Faire. The Faire had the right to approve vendors but looked only at ensuring that the vendor’s products fit within the Renaissance aesthetic at the Faire. Grace filed a multicount complaint against the Faire and against Alesia, alleging product liability and negligence. Grace contended that the candle was defective, that Alesia had not properly tested the gel candle for safety and had not given plaintiff warnings about possible hazards, and that the Faire had not adequately screened the products that it allowed Alesia to sell at the Faire. (Later, Grace voluntarily dismissed the complaints against Alesia after the latter filed for bankruptcy.) The Faire moved for summary judgment, contending that it was not liable under a products liability theory because there was no evidence that it designed, manufactured, or sold the defective candle. As for the negligence claim, the Faire contended that it was not liable because, among other things, Alesia was not an employee or agent of the Faire and the Faire did not owe any duty to the plaintiff. The circuit court agreed and granted summary judgment to the Faire, a ruling that the plaintiff appealed.

Strict products liability claim. The appellate court rejected the plaintiff’s claim of direct liability under a product liability theory. Under Illinois law, all entities in the distributive chain of an allegedly defective product are strictly liable in product liability actions for injuries resulting from that product. By letting Alesia sell the allegedly defective candle at the Faire, the plaintiff contends, the Faire became part of the distributive chain and was thus strictly liable for the plaintiff’s injury. However, the plaintiff’s argument overlooked the fact that an Illinois law provision modifies the rule for members of the distributive chain who are not manufacturers of the allegedly defective product. In order to hold those entities strictly liable, a plaintiff must show not only that the entity put the item into the stream of commerce but also (1) exercised some significant control over the design or manufacture of the product or (2) had actual knowledge of, or created, the defect.

In this instance, the Faire had no role in manufacturing the candles. Alesia made each candle by hand in her own home with materials that she herself purchased and based on formulas that she researched. Even if the Faire introduced the candles into the stream of commerce by granting Alesia permission to sell the candles at the Faire, the Faire’s lack of participation in the manufacturing process rendered it merely a nonmanufacturing member of the distributive chain. Because the Faire did not have any control over the manufacturing process, much less a significant one, in order to be strictly liable, there must be evidence that the Faire was aware of the candle’s defect. However, there was no such evidence. The Faire’s marketplace director testified that she was unaware of any safety protocols for testing gel candles and did not discuss with Alesia the methods that she used for making the candles. Instead, her conversations with Alesia were limited to the aesthetic characteristics of the candles. Without any evidence that the Faire’s marketplace director was aware of any defects in the candles that Alesia planned to sell, a product liability claim against the Faire was precluded.

Negligence claim. The court also ruled in favor of the Faire as to the plaintiff’s negligent selection claims. According to the court, there was no evidence that Alesia was unfit in some way for a position as a vendor at the Faire. The court also rejected the plaintiff’s claim that, by taking upon itself the responsibility of screening and approving the candles that Alesia planned to sell at the Faire, the Faire had a duty of care in the manner in which it performed the screening. There was no evidence that the plaintiff was injured because she relied on the jury process that the Faire used for vendors and, in fact, she was unaware of the jury process. Without at least some evidence of reliance by the plaintiff, the Faire could not be liable for its failure to properly screen the products sold by vendors at the Faire. Although the Faire’s marketplace director had the authority to exclude unsafe products, she testified that the only metric she used for accepting a product for sale at the Faire was whether it was period appropriate. It was indisputable, said the court, that determining product safety was not part of the jurying process used by the Faire. Because the approval process was limited only to determining whether a product was period appropriate, the Faire had no duty to also ensure that the candles were free from defects and carried proper warnings. As a result, summary judgment was upheld in favor of the Faire as to the plaintiff’s product liability and negligence claims.

The case number is 1-13-0575.

Attorneys: Martin L. Glink (Law Office of Martin L. Glink) for Hillary Grace. Tucker Bower Robin & Roma for Bristol Renaissance Faire and Renaissance Entertainment.

Companies: Bristol Renaissance Faire; Renaissance Entertainment.

MainStory: TopStory SCLIssuesNews HouseholdProductsNews IllinoisNews

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