Conn. SC rules for John Deere

Jessica M. Karmasek Aug. 12, 2011, 10:11am


HARTFORD, Conn. (Legal Newsline) - The Connecticut Supreme Court has ruled that an insurance company's evidence was "insufficient" to establish its products liability claim against tractor manufacturer Deere and Co.

The plaintiff, Metropolitan Property and Casualty Insurance Co., brought a product liability action against Deere, claiming that a lawn tractor manufactured by it contained a defect in its electrical system that caused a fire resulting in the destruction of the home of the plaintiff's insureds.

Following a jury verdict in favor of the insurance company, Deere appealed.

Deere claimed that the trial court improperly (1) admitted certain evidence regarding the drivability of the tractor, (2) declined to exclude the testimony of two of the plaintiff's experts and (3) denied the defendant's motions for a directed verdict and to set aside the verdict, in which the defendant claimed the plaintiff had failed to present sufficient evidence to establish liability.

The insurance company argued that the trial court properly admitted the evidence and expert testimony at issue and that it presented sufficient evidence to sustain the jury's verdict pursuant to the "malfunction theory" of products liability.

The Court, in reversing the judgment of the trial court, agreed that a plaintiff may base a product liability action on the "malfunction theory."

The theory permits the plaintiff to establish a prima facie product liability case on the basis of circumstantial evidence when direct evidence of a defect is unavailable.

However, the Court said, in this case, the insurance company's evidence was insufficient to establish such a claim.

Justice Peter T. Zarella authored the Court's opinion, which will be officially released Tuesday.

"Although the malfunction theory is based on the principle that the fact of an accident can support an inference of a defect, proof of an accident alone is insufficient to establish a manufacturer's liability," Zarella wrote.

When direct evidence of a specific defect is unavailable, a jury may rely on circumstantial evidence to infer that a product that malfunctioned was defective at the time it left the manufacturer's or seller's control, the Court said.

That is, if the plaintiff presents evidence establishing that (1) the incident that caused the plaintiff's harm was of a kind that ordinarily does not occur in the absence of a product defect and (2) any defect most likely existed at the time the product left the manufacturer's or seller's control and was not the result of other reasonably possible causes not attributable to the manufacturer or seller.

The Court concluded that the insurance company's evidence was sufficient to permit the jury to infer that the fire started within the tractor and that the fire most likely started as a result of a failure in the tractor's electrical system.

However, the plaintiff's evidence did not support an inference that any defect existed in the electrical system when the tractor left the defendant's manufacturing facilities or at the time it was sold, the Court said.

"The plaintiff's own evidence pointed to the possibility of other causes of an electrical failure not attributable to the defendant, namely, the possibility of improper maintenance and improper use," the Court wrote.

In addition, the Court said the insurance company's evidence failed to link an electrical failure in the tractor to a defect attributable to Deere.

"The evidence presented at trial clearly established that there were no problems reported with the tractor's electrical system during the first four years of use and that the tractor functioned properly during that time, weakening any inference that the tractor's electrical system was defective at the time it was manufactured or when it was sold to the homeowners," it wrote.

And because the tractor was not new or nearly new when it malfunctioned, the insurance company was required to present additional evidence to explain how the tractor could have had a defect in the electrical system when it left Deere's manufacturing facilities yet function without problems for several years.

The Court said the insurance company did not present any such evidence.

"Because the plaintiff did not present direct evidence to establish that any defect in the tractor was attributable to the defendant, it could rely on no other theory to establish its product liability claim, and, therefore, the trial court should have granted the defendant's motion for a directed verdict," the Court concluded.

The case is remanded with direction to grant Deere's motion for a directed verdict and to render judgment for the tractor company.

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