District Court Grants Smoke Alarm Manufacturer’s Motion for Summary Judgment Due to Speculative Product Identification Evidence

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On April 27, 2016, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York granted a defendant manufacturer’s motion for summary judgment in a personal injury lawsuit based in products liability. In Paniagua v. Walter Kidde Portable Equip., Inc., 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 56154, the plaintiff brought claims of strict products liability, breach of warranty, violations of the New York Uniform Commercial Code, negligence, negligent misrepresentation, and negligent infliction of emotional distress arising out of a 2005 fire in his New York City apartment that killed his mother and caused him, then age 11, to sustain severe injuries.

The plaintiff’s suit alleged that an ionization smoke alarm (Model No. 916) manufactured by Kidde and present in the apartment at the time of the fire malfunctioned, denying plaintiff and his mother sufficient warning to enable them to escape the apartment safely. Specifically, the plaintiff alleged that the smoke alarm model was unreasonably dangerous, hazardous and defective in design in that it “sounded between fifteen to twenty minutes later than similar photoelectric alarms in smoldering fires” and that this defect caused plaintiff’s injuries as the incident smoke alarm did not sound to provide him a timely warning of the fire.

As the statute of limitations for plaintiff’s claims was tolled until he reached majority, this lawsuit was not filed until nearly 10 years after the fire occurred. As a result, the incident smoke alarm was not preserved and no photographs depicting it were known to exist. Moreover, no witness was able to verify that the smoke alarm was a Kidde product. As such, Kidde filed a motion for summary judgment on the ground that the plaintiff failed to present evidence sufficient to support a finding that the smoke alarm present in the apartment was a Kidde product.

In response, the plaintiff pointed to four categories of circumstantial evidence, which, he argued, together would permit a jury to identify Kidde as the alarm’s manufacturer. These categories included: (1) the recollections of the plaintiff and his sister that the alarm was battery-operated; (2) an apartment inspection form produced by the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) indicating that the incident alarm was replaced seven months before the fire; (3) two purchase orders produced by the NYCHA, the first a 2002 order for Model No. 916 battery-operated ionization alarms, and the second a 2005 order for hardwired ESL No. 320 photoelectric smoke alarms; and (4) an incident report from the fire department stating that the alarm in the apartment was battery-operated.

The district court granted Kidde’s motion for summary judgment. In support, the court noted that the circumstantial evidence presented did not prove that the No. 916 and No. 320 models were the only two types of alarms purchased by the NYCHA prior to the fire. Accordingly, although the evidence presented by the plaintiff raised the possibility that the smoke alarm in question was one of the two types, it did not render that conclusion reasonably probable. As a jury would be required to engage in unacceptable conjecture to find Kidde liable for all of plaintiff’s claims, Kidde was entitled to summary judgment in its favor.


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