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From Products Liability Law Daily, January 12, 2015

Space heater maker dodges defective design claim; not manufacturing defect claim

By Pamela C. Maloney, J.D.

The consumer expectation standard, which had been removed from the Ohio Products Liability Act in 2005, could not be relied on by the purchaser of a space heater to support his design defect claim, which was based solely on circumstantial evidence, a federal court in Ohio ruled. However, the homeowner did provide sufficient circumstantial evidence of a manufacturing defect to overcome the manufacturer’s motion for summary judgment on this count. The court also determined that the testimony offered by the homeowner’s fire origin expert testimony was reliable, despite the manufacturer’s claim that the expert had not followed industry standards applicable to fire investigations (Erie Insurance Co. v. Sunbeam Products, Inc., January 8, 2015, Abel, M.).

Background. The homeowner’s secretary had purchased a space heater manufactured by Sunbeam Products Inc. for use in the basement of the home, which had been finished to include a home office, living room, utility room, cedar closet, bathroom and bedroom. While the homeowner and his spouse were away from the home, a fire, which allegedly originated in the space heater, caused damage to the structure. The homeowner filed a products liability action against the manufacturer in which it was alleged that the space heater had been defectively designed and manufactured. The manufacturer asked the court to exclude the report and testimony of the homeowner’s fire origin expert and moved for summary judgment on the products liability claims.

Expert testimony. According to the manufacturer, the homeowner’s expert did not follow standards in National Fire Protection Association 921: Guide for Fire and Explosion Investigations (NFPA 921). Specifically, the manufacturer challenged the expert’s application of the scientific method described in the standard by failing to: (1) collect and analyze all data available to him; (2) review the manufacturer’s entire document production; and (3) formulate alternative hypotheses, perform any tests and submit his theory for peer review.

In rejecting the manufacturer’s challenge to the reliability of the expert’s testimony, the court found that although the expert had not spoken to all the firefighters at the scene or to the staff at the company that conducted the initial fire investigation, he did review the depositions of the first responders and the report produced by the investigation agency. He further explained that he did not review all of the manufacturer’s documents because they were written in Chinese. In addition, the evidence showed that the expert did develop and rule out several hypotheses for the origin of the blaze and that he used deductive reasoning in place of physical tests, as permitted under NFPA 921, to arrive at his conclusions. The expert also conducted a physical examination of the remains of the heater. The court found that the expert’s failure to conduct alternative testing to rule out other causes of the fire went to the weight, not the admissibility, of his testimony. Finally, the argument that the expert’s causation theory regarding the origin of the fire had not been peer-reviewed was irrelevant because only the theories underlying the forensic fire investigation standards in NFPA 921, which the expert used to form his causation conclusion, were subject to review, not his actual conclusion. Because the expert’s testimony was grounded in the generally accepted methodology outlined in NFPA 921, and was more than mere speculation or subjective belief, it was admissible.

Design defect. In response to the manufacturer’s challenge that the homeowner failed to identify a specific defect in the space heater that caused the fire, the homeowner argued that he had provided sufficient circumstantial evidence that the fire originated with the space heater and that, under the consumer expectation standard, he was required to prove only that the space heater did not perform in the way an ordinary consumer would expect when used as intended. Because the heater was purchased prior to the date Ohio’s removal of the consumer expectation standard took effect, the homeowner was required to prove that the foreseeable risks associated with the design exceeded the benefits associated with the design and that a practical and technically feasible alternative design existed that would have prevented the harm. The homeowner failed to address the benefits and risks of the space heater’s design and failed to present any evidence of an alternative design. Therefore, the manufacturer was entitled to summary judgment on the design defect claim.

Manufacturing defect. However, the existence of a manufacturing defect could be established though circumstantial evidence, the court noted. In this case, the firefighters thought the fire started in the basement bedroom at or about where the space heater was located. The company that conducted the initial investigation eliminated all other possible causes for the fire, including intentional causes and carelessness, and concluded that the most likely cause was a failure or malfunction of the heater. The homeowner’s expert eliminated misuse or abuse of the heater as a possible cause. As a result, there was an issue of fact as to whether the space heater was defective and whether that defect caused the fire. Thus, the manufacturer’s motion for summary judgment on this issue was denied.

The case is Civil Action 2:12-cv-00703.

Attorneys: Warren S. George (Keis George LLP) for Erie Insurance Co. Francis Daniel Balmert (Vorys Sater Seymour & Pease, LLP) for Sunbeam Products, Inc.

Companies: Erie Insurance Co.; Sunbeam Products, Inc.

MainStory: TopStory ExpertEvidenceNews DesignManufacturingNews HouseholdProductsNews TennesseeNews

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