Examination of the Product Does Not Stop a Pennsylvania Court From Applying the Malfunction Theory

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White and Williams LLP

Pennsylvania recognizes the malfunction theory in product liability cases. This theory allows a plaintiff to circumstantially prove that a product is defective by showing evidence of a malfunction and eliminating abnormal use or reasonable, secondary causes for the malfunction. The malfunction theory is available to plaintiffs as an alternative to proving a traditional strict product liability case in those circumstances where direct evidence of a product defect is not found. In Pa. Nat’l Mut. Cas. Ins. Co. v. Sam’s East, Inc., 727 MDA 2020, 2021 Pa. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 752, the Superior Court of Pennsylvania (Superior Court) considered whether the plaintiffs could avail themselves to the malfunction theory if the plaintiffs’ expert was able to examine the product.

The Sam’s East, Inc. case arose from a February 2015 fire at the residence of Gerald and Michelle Thompson (the Thompsons). The fire caused injuries to the Thompsons, as well as significant damage to their residence. Pennsylvania National Mutual Casualty Insurance Company (Insurer) provided homeowners insurance coverage for the property and made payments to the Thompsons as a result of the fire. Insurer retained a fire investigator to investigate the origin and cause of the fire. The fire investigator determined that the fire originated at an electric space heater that was purchased from defendant Sam’s East, Inc. (Sam’s East) in December 2011. Insurer and the Thompsons filed a lawsuit against Sam’s East in early 2017 for their respective damages.

In support of their claim, the plaintiffs submitted a liability report from their fire investigator. The expert report did not identify a specific defect within the space heater but concluded that the fire originated within the electric space heater, and that all additional heat sources within the home had been eliminated as potential causes of the fire. Sam’s East filed a motion for summary judgment. The trial court granted the motion, finding that the liability report fell short of the proof required to overcome the defendant’s motion, specifically because it failed to identify the design defect, how the alleged defect caused the fire, or what safer design could have prevented the fire. The court also noted that the plaintiffs could not rely on the malfunction theory because their expert fire investigator examined the product. After the trial court denied the plaintiffs’ motion for reconsideration, the plaintiffs filed an appeal.

The Superior Court acknowledged that Pennsylvania has adopted the elements set forth in Section 402A of the Restatement of Torts for strict product liability cases, which requires a plaintiff to demonstrate that a product was defective, the defect caused the injury, and that the defect existed at the time the product left the manufacturer’s control. However, the court noted that Pennsylvania also recognizes the malfunction theory, which permits a plaintiff to prove a defect in a product with evidence of the occurrence of a malfunction and with evidence eliminating abnormal use or reasonable, secondary causes for the malfunction. While the plaintiff still has the burden of establishing a defect, the court explained that under the malfunction theory, the malfunction is itself circumstantial evidence of a defective condition.

The court found that the plaintiffs’ expert report was sufficient to establish a prima facie case of a product malfunction. The report opined that the fire started inside the product and ruled out all other potential ignition sources inside the home as a possible secondary cause. The Superior Court held that the trial court erred by usurping the function of the jury, which could reasonably find that the space heater at issue malfunctioned, and that there were no other possible causes for the fire. The court reversed the lower court’s ruling and remanded the case for trial.

The Sam’s East, Inc. decision clarified that the malfunction theory is available to plaintiffs even if the product is found and examined by plaintiffs’ experts. Remnants of products are often found during origin and cause investigations of fires, but sometimes the product is too damaged to identify a specific defect. The malfunction theory permits plaintiffs to proceed with a product liability claim even if the product was found but was too fire damaged to reveal the failure mode. This case reminds us that, in Pennsylvania, the malfunction theory is available to plaintiffs even in those instances where the product was recovered from the scene, but a defect could not be identified.

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DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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