Verdict in Favor of Defendant Fire-Suppression System Manufacturer in Yacht Fire Case Affirmed

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On May 26, 2016, the Court of Appeal of Louisiana, Fifth Circuit affirmed a jury verdict in favor of the defendant in a products liability suit involving a 2011 fire that started in the engine room of a 67-foot wooden yacht. In Sudderth v. Mariner Elec. Co., 16-5 ( La. App. 5 Cir 05/26/16) the plaintiff filed suit against the manufacturer of an automatic fire-suppression system alleging that the system was defective, unreasonably dangerous in design, construction, and did not perform as advertised. Specifically, the plaintiff claimed that the suppression system, which was designed to protect unoccupied engine compartments by discharging when the surrounding temperature reaches 175 degrees Fahrenheit, did not discharge during the fire resulting in significant fire damage to the yacht.

At trial, the plaintiff’s fire expert George Casellas testified that the incident suppression system was defective and did not work as intended as there was no doubt that the temperatures around the system would have reached in excess of 175 degrees during the fire. In support, Casellas testified that an inspection tag affixed to the system was damaged in the fire, and that this tag wouldn’t have started to char until surrounding temperatures reached 300 degrees.

In contrast, the defendant manufacturer’s fire expert Richard Meier testified that temperatures at the suppression system would not have reached 175 degrees because, as smoke and hot gases traveled through the engine room, the hot gases stayed at ceiling level resulting in cooler air being present at the system itself. Meier further testified that insulated air conditioning ducts just above the suppression system would have blocked any radiant heat that came down from the hot gases above as well as any convection currents that might have been stirring around the engine room.

At the conclusion of the trial, the jury returned a verdict in favor of the defendant manufacturer after finding that the fire-suppression system was not defective or unreasonably dangerous. Subsequently, the plaintiff filed a motion for judgment notwithstanding the jury’s verdict arguing that the verdict was not supported by the evidence presented at trial. The trial judge denied the motion and the plaintiff appealed.

The Court of Appeal held that when the testimony of expert witnesses differs, it is the responsibility of the trier of fact to determine which evidence is more credible. As the jury in this case was presented with two permissible views of the evidence, its choice between them could not be clearly wrong. As such, the Court of Appeal found no manifest error in the jury’s determination that the fire suppression system did not contain a manufacturing defect rendering it unreasonably dangerous and affirmed the trial court’s judgment.

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