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Speller v. Sears, Roebuck & Co

    Brief Fact Summary. Sara Speller (Speller) was killed in a house fire, which started in the kitchen. Plaintiff sued Sears, Roebuck & Co. (Defendant) for products liability and sought to prove her claim with circumstantial evidence.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. In order to proceed in the absence of evidence, identifying a specific flaw, a plaintiff must prove that the product did not perform as intended, and must exclude all other causes for the product’s failure that are not attributable to defendants.

    Facts. Speller died in a house fire that also injured her seven-year-old son. It is undisputed that the fire originated in the kitchen. Plaintiff asserted that the fire was caused by defective wiring in the refrigerator, a product manufactured by Whirlpool and sold by Defendant. Plaintiff sued Defendant for products liability. Defendant rejected Plaintiff’s argument that the refrigerator was the source of the fire. Rather, Defendant contended that a stovetop grease fire was the cause of the fire. Plaintiff submitted excerpts from the depositions of two experts and an affidavit from a third, as well as other materials. They all rejected the stove as the source of the fire. Defendant moved for summary judgment. The supreme court denied Defendant’s motion. The Appellate Division reversed, granting Defendant’s summary judgment motion. Plaintiff appealed.

    Issue. Can Plaintiff maintain a cause of action in tort for products liability with the circumstantial evidence presented?

    Held. Yes. Judgment reversed.
    * A party injured as a result of a defective product may seek relief against the product manufacturer or others in the distribution chain if the defect was a substantial factor in causing the injury.
    * Plaintiff’s theory was that the wiring in the upper right quadrant of the refrigerator was faulty, causing an electrical fire, which spread to the rest of the kitchen. Because that part of the refrigerator had been destroyed in the fire, Plaintiff sought to prove the claim with circumstantial evidence.
    * New York has long recognized the viability of this circumstantial approach in products liability cases. In order to proceed in the absence of evidence, identifying a specific flaw, a plaintiff must prove that the product did not perform as intended and must exclude all other causes for the product’s failure that are not attributable to defendants.
    * Defendant focused on the second prong of the circumstantial inquiry, Plaintiff had not excluded other causes for the products failure that are not attributable to Defendant. Defendant claimed that the fire was started by grease that was caught on fire by the stove. This was the conclusion reached by the Fire Marshall.
    * Plaintiff introduced expert testimonies and an affidavit, which refuted Defendant’s theory and the Fire Marshall’s conclusion. Upon review of these expert depositions and affidavit, the court concluded that Plaintiffs raised a triable issue of fact. Based on Plaintiff’s evidence, the jury could conclude that Plaintiff excluded all other causes of the fire.

    Discussion. Product liability can be proven by circumstantial evidence with the proof in which a party proves that the event would not occur unless there was a defect and that other sources of harm can be excluded.



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