On August 16, 2011, the Connecticut Supreme Court limited a plaintiff’s ability to implement the malfunction theory in products liability cases. In an opinion written by Justice Zarella, the court held a plaintiff must offer sufficient evidence to causally relate its injury to the product defect and demonstrate that such a defect existed at the time the product left the control of the manufacturer. Metropolitan Property & Casualty Insurance Company v. Deere and Company Et Al., SC 18341 (Ct. August 16, 2011). The ruling is the first time the state’s highest court addressed this unclear and, at times, highly controversial issue.
Similar to many states, Connecticut’s malfunction theory permits a plaintiff, asserting strict liability, to prove a product defect and establish a prima facie case on the basis of circumstantial evidence, when direct evidence in unavailable. The theory is most readily implemented in actions in which the subject product is destroyed, such as a fire or an explosion, leaving the plaintiff with no evidence to examine or present to establish a products liability action against a manufacturer. Although this theory does not alleviate a plaintiff’s burden to prove all elements of a product liability claim, it does work to establish a prima facie case by allowing a jury to infer a defect existed attributable to the manufacturer. This has been problematic for manufacturers in that the theory affords a plaintiff the ability to present a case without any direct evidence of a defect, while at the same time making the defense of the action extremely difficult, as the defendant can offer no physical evidence to the contrary, due to the unavailability of the product.
The majority of states have adopted a variation of the malfunction theory. Prior to Deere, the Connecticut Supreme Court had not examined the circumstances in which this theory may apply, though the Appellate and Superior Courts have allowed plaintiffs to invoke the theory to permit a jury to infer the existence of a product defect for years.
In Deere a fire broke out at the home of Spyro and Roula Kallivrousis on July 13, 2003. That day, prior to the fire, Roula Kallivrousis was cutting the grass with the family’s John Deere LX 178 lawn tractor, which they purchased in 1998. Ms. Kallivrousis did not finish cutting the grass due to the lawn tractor “running rough.” She returned the tractor to its usual storage location in the westernmost bay of the garage. Later that day, at approximately 11:30 a.m., while in the garage, Ms. Kallivrousis noticed a strange smell, which she likened to antifreeze. She was unable to determine the origin of the smell despite conducting an inspection of the garage and the tractor. Believing everything to be fine, she left the house. Approximately one and one-half hours later a fire broke out in the Kallivrousis home. It was determined that the fire originated in the garage; however, the fire marshals deemed the cause of the fire to be “undetermined” but identified the homeowners’ lawn tractor as a likely “significant factor” in the cause of the fire. The fire marshals did not disassemble or examine the tractor. The Kallivrousis’ insurer settled the claim and, via its subrogation rights, brought a products liability action against John Deere.
In the Superior Court case, the plaintiff contended that the tractor’s electrical system was defective when it left the control of the manufacturer and that the electrical system defect was the cause and origin of the subject fire. Because the tractor had been destroyed in the fire and thus unavailable, plaintiff’s counsel asserted the malfunction theory to establish its case. The jury returned a $749,642.69 verdict in favor of the plaintiff. The defendant appealed the verdict, arguing the plaintiff’s evidence was insufficient to support a claim of products liability against the manufacturer, John Deere.
The Connecticut Supreme Court reversed and remanded the case, with instructions for a directed verdict in favor of John Deere. Likening the circumstances to the res ipsa loquitar doctrine, the court noted “the fact of a product accident does not necessarily establish either the existence of a defect or that the manufacturer is responsible, both of which must be proven in product liability cases.” The court further noted that a manufacturer “does not have control” of its product “at the time injury occurs … product accidents often occur for a variety of reasons that do not indicate the existence of a defect or that the manufacturer is responsible, both of which must be proven in products liability cases.”
Thus, the court deemed it “important that appropriate limitations be placed on the application of the malfunction theory,” holding a jury may rely on circumstantial evidence to infer that a product was defective at the time it left the manufacturer’s control if the evidence shows:
The Supreme Court’s ruling is of great consequence to manufacturers who avail themselves of Connecticut’s jurisdiction. The court’s decision, for the first time, dramatically restricts a plaintiff’s ability to invoke the malfunction theory by defining an evidentiary standard and helps to restrict actions against manufacturers not based on direct evidence. Though the ruling does not cure all the ills of the malfunction theory, it does take that critical first step towards refinement and equity.
If you have questions about how this may impact your business, please contact a member of the Goldberg Segalla Product Liability Practice Group.