Federal Judge Denies Summary Judgment Even When Plaintiff’s Expert Admits He’s Not Offering Opinion that Defect in Product Caused Fire

On February 9, 2016, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Indiana granted summary judgment, in part, to Lennox Industries, Inc. in a subrogation lawsuit based in product liability. In Cincinnati Ins. Co v. Lennox Indus., 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 15385, a fire occurred at the Howard residence. Repairs in the amount of $408,000 were paid for by the Howards’ insurance company, The Cincinnati Insurance Co. (CIC). CIC then sued Lennox claiming that electrical arcing between an air condensing unit’s (ACU) compressor and its power source ignited organic material inside the ACU causing the fire. The ACU was mounted outside and adjacent to the Howards’ residence.

CIC alleged that “the ACU was manufactured, designed, and/or labeled in an unsafe, defective, and inherently dangerous condition” in asserting claims for negligence, strict liability and warranty. Lennox moved for summary judgment. Additionally, Lennox moved to strike the expert reports of CIC’s Origin and Cause Investigator, Larry Cooper, and its electrical engineer, Brad O’Neal.

After reiterating the court’s disfavor of motions to strike, the court analyzed the motions under the standard set forth in Daubert. The court held that the expert reports of Cooper and O’Neal were both reliable and relevant.  Specifically, the court noted that Cooper examined the scene twice, identified and interviewed potential witnesses, researched the subject product, analyzed the fire report and researched the weather on the day of the fire. Based on this, the court found that Cooper collected facts and data in accordance with National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) Publication 921.

With respect to O’Neal’s report, the court determined that O’Neal appropriately used NFPA 921 in conducting his investigation. O’Neal utilized and relied on Cooper’s findings and inspection photos. Additionally, O’Neal conducted an evidence exam. Based on this, the court found that both experts gathered relevant data, applied it to NFPA and reached their scientific conclusions which will help the jury in determining the cause of the fire.

In his deposition, O’Neal admitted that he was not offering any opinions that the alleged electrical arcing resulted from a defective or unreasonably dangerous characteristic of the ACU.

As such, Lennox argued that Cincinnati failed to show evidence to prove that the ACU was defective. The court, however, found that Cincinnati sufficiently eliminated other reasonably possible causes and O’Neal opined that the ignition source was the ACU and that arc mapping placed the fire originating inside the condensing unit, which was also consistent with Cooper’s area of origin. Based on this, the court denied Lennox’ motion on the manufacturing defect claim.

Because CIC failed to address the arguments of design defect or failure to warn in its response to Lennox’ motion, summary judgment was granted on the design defect and failure to warn claims.

 

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