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Plaintiff Bears the Burden of Rendering Other Potential Causes of an Accident Sufficiently Remote When Relying on Circumstantial Evidence to Prove Causation


Plaintiff Bears the Burden of Rendering Other Potential Causes of an Accident Sufficiently Remote When Relying on Circumstantial Evidence to Prove Causation

March 23, 2012

In a recent case before the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York, the court granted summary judgment dismissing the plaintiffs’ case where the plaintiffs, in relying upon circumstantial evidence to prove causation, failed to eliminate other potential causes of the accident. A.T. v. Home Depot U.S.A., 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 7303, (E.D.N.Y. 2012).

This case was filed by the plaintiffs alleging that a defective Christmas ornament caused their New York home to be significantly damaged by fire. In support of this claim, the plaintiffs stated that in December of 2005 they purchased a Lanson device on their Christmas tree which, when touched, would cause the Christmas tree’s lights to turn on and off. On January 3, 2006, the residence caught fire. Plaintiffs claimed that the Lanson device was the cause of the fire, while the defendants argued that there were other potential causes.

Much of the direct evidence, including the Lanson device and tree lights, was burned and missing. As a result, the plaintiffs largely relied upon circumstantial evidence and expert testimony in an effort to establish that the device was defective. Conflicting accounts mounted during the trial, including one of the children testifying to previously seeing the Christmas lighting turn on without anyone touching the Lanson device while other family members did not observe this occurrence. Further, the plaintiffs were unsure if the device was plugged into the wall or a surge protector and, therefore, could not establish that a surge protector was not the cause of the fire.

Expert testimony was also conflicting, with plaintiffs’ expert testifying that the device was defectively designed and defendants’ expert testifying that, as a result of the damage, the cause of the fire could not be determined due to the existence of may potential ignition sources.

Further testimony by fire inspectors established that the device could not be found at the scene following the fire and evidence of a “three pronged device” was found in the outlet behind the Christmas tree, whereas the Lanson device had only two prongs. While these fire inspectors testified that the Lanson device is the “likely” cause of the fire, they could not say testify with the requisite degree of certainty.

In evaluating the evidence presented in its entirety, the court, citing St. Paul Mercury Ins. Co. v. Pepsi-Cola Bottling Co. of New York, Inc., 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 56884 (E.D.N.Y. 2007), found:

“Although plaintiffs may prove proximate causation through circumstantial evidence and need not `positively exclude every other possible cause of the accident but defendant’s negligence,’ plaintiffs must still ‘render those other causes sufficiently remote or technically so that the jury may reach its verdict based on logical inferences to be drawn from the evidence, not upon speculation.’”

In establishing the inability to sufficiently exclude other potential causes of an accident, the A.T. decision highlights the successful strategy of defense counsel going on the offensive when faced with a plaintiff’s reliance upon circumstantial evidence to prove causation.

If you have questions about how this may impact your business, please contact a member of the Goldberg Segalla Product Liability Practice Group.