Avoiding a Catch-22: Proving a Defective Product in Indiana when the Product Self Destructs
There is a misconception among some that if a product is destroyed during a fire, that it will be too difficult to prove the product had a defect because no specific mechanism can be pinpointed as the cause and origin of the fire. However, in spite of manufacturing defendants’ attempts to take advantage of a potential legal Catch-22, Indiana law allows a manufacturing defect in a product to be proven through circumstantial evidence and a process of elimination. This was explained by a federal court applying Indiana law in Gaskin v. Sharp Electronics.
In Gaskin, the plaintiffs claimed that a 19-inch Sharp television caught fire in Ms. Gaskin’s elderly mother’s room, causing her death. They alleged that Sharp was strictly liable for placing an unreasonably dangerous and defective product–the television–into the stream of commerce. Sharp filed a motion for summary judgment claiming the plaintiffs were unable to show a defect in the television after their engineering expert was excluded by the court as unreliable.
The plaintiffs responded to the manufacturer’s motion with evidence from a fire investigator who noted that based on his burn pattern analysis and other evidence examined, the fire originated to the north of the television stand. And, circuit wiring in the room was examined and eliminated as the cause of the fire. Although a definitive cause could not be determined, the investigator opined that the fire had burned upward and outward from the television stand. He conceded he didn’t know the first thing about televisions, but the television was the only ignition source among many he examined that could not be eliminated.
Although ordinarily, a product defect will be proven through an expert with knowledge of the product and direct evidence of a defect, alternatively, a defect can be proven by an expert and circumstantial evidence of a specific defect, direct evidence from an eyewitness of the malfunction, supported by expert testimony explaining possible causes, or, as a last resort, “inferential evidence by negating other possible causes.” Left with no engineering expert, the plaintiffs had to use this method of last resort.
After an exhaustive analysis, the court concluded that although the evidence presented of a product defect was “scant,” it was indeed sufficient to create a triable issue of fact for a jury. The evidence consisted of the investigator’s testimony that he observed the scene, concluded the fire had not started on the bed, did not start in either of the two receptacle electrical outlets, did not start in the wall switch, did not originate in the overhead light, had not originated in the closet, and had not started in the electrical wiring in the wall. Thus, the plaintiffs survived the motion through an expert (who was no expert in the product itself) going through a process of elimination analysis.
Although using a process of elimination approach to prove an appliance defect caused a catastrophic fire may not be the preferred method, it may be the only viable method under certain circumstances. This method has again succeeded in overcoming a motion for summary judgment more recently in the federal court case of Cincinnati Ins. Co. v. Lennox in the context of a fire alleged to have originated in an air conditioning unit. After losing its attempt to have the case dismissed, Lennox asked the federal court to certify a question of law to the Indiana Supreme Court. The federal court refused the request to have the question of law reviewed by Indiana’s highest court, noting the court had again reviewed Indiana law and had concluded that “Lennox has not demonstrated that there are substantial grounds for differences of opinion as to any relevant question of law.”
A few years ago, Todd investigated a home fire that appeared to originate in an appliance in the home. Realizing that the product was largely destroyed, leaving him with only an investigator’s observations and burn-pattern evidence, he was ultimately able to persuade a manufacturer that other causes could be eliminated and, therefore, it would be a good idea to resolve the case based upon the favorable precedent of Gaskin v. Sharp. Months before Todd resolved his clients’ claims, however, the insurer of the home abandoned its six-figure plus damages claim against the appliance manufacturer, ignoring Todd’s insistence that Gaskin would help their cause and refusing his offer to share information and costs towards achieving a common goal of recovery. In the end, persistence and awareness of the law allowed Todd to achieve a settlement for his clients.