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From Products Liability Law Daily, September 25, 2018

No evidence of defect or unreasonable danger dooms product liability claims against maker of drain cleaner

By Kathleen Bianco, J.D.

In an action arising out of injuries incurred by a user of a commercial drain cleaning product, the manufacturer of the product was entitled to summary judgment on the user’s negligence, gross negligence, and breach of implied warranty claims under the Tennessee Product Liability Act (TPLA), a federal district court in Tennessee held. In reaching this conclusion, the court determined that there was no genuine dispute of material fact and that based on the lack of evidence presented to establish a product defect or an unreasonably dangerous condition, the manufacturer was entitled to judgment (Walls v. The Rooto Corp., September 24, 2018, McDonough, T.).

The consumer purchased four one-gallon bottles of Rooto Professional Drain Opener for use on a four-inch drain at a commercial apartment building that he owned. The consumer alleged that he had used the product multiple times prior to the day of the accident and had used two of the four bottles he purchased without incident. According to the consumer, as he was opening the third bottle, it splashed or exploded on him, burning his skin and requiring a trip to the emergency room. As a result of the incident, the consumer and his wife filed suit against The Rooto Corporation, the manufacturer of the product, alleging claims for negligence, breach of implied warranty, and gross negligence. The manufacturer responded by filing a motion for summary judgment.

Product defect. In order to prevail on a claim under the TPLA, a plaintiff must show that the product was defective and/or unreasonably dangerous, that the defective or dangerous condition existed at the time the product left the manufacturer’s control, and the purported injury was caused by the defective condition. As to a defective condition, the consumer alleged that the product was contaminated by asserting that the sulfuric acid content was less than recommended based upon the testimony of The Rooto Corporation’s owner in an unrelated case that concerned the concentration of sulfuric acid in the product in 2011, five years prior to the accident at hand.

The court rejected the consumer’s argument, finding that he offered no proof regarding the "recommended" concentration of sulfuric acid in the product at the time of the accident and presented no evidence regarding how or when the alleged contamination might have occurred or what the contaminating element might have been. Furthermore, the manufacturer presented unrefuted evidence to disprove the contamination theory by demonstrating that the product was produced on a dedicated product line and by showing that in 2016 and prior years, no reports of contamination had been received on the hundreds of cartons of one-gallon bottles of the product that had been introduced into the stream of commerce. Based on the evidence presented, the consumer failed to present adequate proof to create a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the product was contaminated.

The consumer next claimed that the inner liner of the product was not properly affixed when he removed the cap, but he failed to present any evidence establishing that the product left the manufacturer’s control in that condition or that the design of the seal was deficient. The court found these arguments unavailing because it is well established that the actual design of a product does not have to be perfect, accident proof, or incapable of causing injury to be considered non-defective.

Unreasonably dangerous. An unreasonably dangerous product is one that is "dangerous to an extent beyond that which would be contemplated by the ordinary consumer who purchases it, with the ordinary knowledge common to the community as to its characteristics, or that the product because of its dangerous condition would not be put on the market by a reasonably prudent manufacturer or seller, assuming that the manufacturer or seller knew of its dangerous condition." Under Tennessee law, a manufacturer is entitled to a statutory presumption that its product is not unreasonably dangerous if the manufacturer has complied with all state and federal regulations. In this case, the manufacturer was entitled to that assumption. In an attempt to rebut the presumption, the consumer argued that the product was unreasonably dangerous because a different type of inner seal would have prevented the accident. The court again rejected the consumer’s argument, reasoning that the existence of a better, safer, or different design alone does not demonstrate a departure from the required standard of care. Moreover, the absence of other accidents lent credence to the manufacturer’s contention that its product was not unreasonably dangerous. Consequently, the evidence presented failed to establish a genuine issue of material fact as to the dangerous nature of the product. Thus, the manufacturer was entitled to judgment.

The case is No. 1:17-cv-226.

Attorneys: John T. Rice (Law Office of John T. Rice) for George K. Walls. Andrew J. Godbold and William E. Godbold, III (Leitner Williams Dooley Napolitan, PLLC) for The Rooto Corp.

Companies: The Rooto Corp.

MainStory: TopStory DesignManufacturingNews ChemicalNews NorthCarolinaNews

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