Pennsylvania Court Decides that Two Possible Causes Can Prove a Product Malfunction Theory of Liability

In Allstate Ins. Co. v. LG Elecs. USA, Inc., No. 19-3529, 2021 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 127014, the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania was considering whether the plaintiff’s expert engineer’s opinion that there were two possible causes of fire—both associated with the alleged product defects within a refrigerator manufactured by the defendant—was enough to support the malfunction theory of products liability. 

Finally, the court decided and found that since both the potential causes were due to defects in the product and imposed liability on the manufacturer. There were no external causes of the fire nor any misuse of the product, and it was not needed for the engineer to find the specific cause of the fire in the product. The court also ruled that the expert’s investigation and opinions met the criteria outlined in Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharms., Inc., 509 U.S. 579 (1993) and the Federal Rules of Evidence and, thus, were admissible.

At the home of Thomas and Lisa Ellis, a fire arose from LG Electronics. The public fire investigator claimed that the top of a refrigerator by LG Electronics was the site of origin of the fire. The couple then proceeded to file a claim with their homeowner’s insurance carrier, Allstate Insurance Company (Insurer). The insurer then hired an engineer and a fire investigator to inspect the cause of the fire. The fire investigator agreed with the public fire investigator regarding the fire’s origin.

The engineer also conducted a forensic examination of the refrigerator and found no external cause of the fire or any misuse. He also observed arcing activity on a wire at the front top of the fridge.  He stated two possible reasons for the fire; either the heater circuit insulation failed over time due to mechanical damage, or the heat from the internal light fixture ignited combustible components of the refrigerator. Since both causes were due to problems within the fridge, he said that the reason was a mechanical defect.

Due to this, Insurer filed a subrogation action against LG to receive the amount it paid Ellises for the loss. However, LG argued that the engineer did not provide a single cause with scientific certainty; hence his opinions could not prove that the manufacturer was at fault. LG also argued that without the testimony of the engineer, the Insurer has no proof.

The court acknowledged that Pennsylvania does recognize the malfunction theory of products liability. According to Attorney Jon Ostroff of the Ostroff Injury Law, “The malfunction theory relieves the plaintiff of the need to pinpoint a specific

defect as the cause of their injury. To successfully prove the malfunction theory of

products liability, the attorney needs to prove that there was an actual malfunction

without offsetting evidence of abuse or other potential causes of the breakdown,

other than a malfunction.” 

The court decided that the malfunction theory was applicable in this case and could be used by Insurer. The court cited other Pennsylvania cases where the plaintiff could still rely on circumstantial evidence to prove a manufacturing fault and product defect.

The court also stated that under Rule 702 of the Federal Rules of Evidence and Daubert, the factors to consider for the admissibility of expert testimony are: 1) qualifications of the expert; 2) whether the testimony is based on enough facts and data; 3) whether the opinions are the product of reliable principles and methods; and 4) were the principles and methods reliably applied to the facts of the case. Since LG did not question the qualification of the engineer, the court ruling was based on whether there were sufficient facts and data or not and whether his methods were scientifically accurate or not.

The engineer’s data and methodology were sufficient and reliable according to the court’s findings. Hence, the court decided that his opinion of the two possible causes was enough to prove the product defect, and the plaintiff did not need to specify a single cause of the fire. Contrary to LG’s claims, the court stated that NFPA 921 did not require any specific test or physical experimentation and hence denied LG’s Daubert and summary judgment motions. 

Hemant Kumar
Hemant Kumar is a project manager at Tridindia with more than nine years of commendable experience in writing about LMS, translation, and IT. His unmatched talent and passion for digital marketing gave him the opportunity to work as a multi-tasking project manager at TridIndia’s sister company, Link Building Corp. Today, he contributes to the world by imparting knowledge on SEO, link building and internet marketing etc., that helps business owners grow their online business.