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Breaking Legal Developments

07-01-2002

Published by:
Peter A. Lynch, Esq.
of Cozen O'Connor
palynch@cozen.com
http://www.cozen.com

 

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY:      This weekly newsletter covers:

  1. Fourth Circuit Finds Expert Opinion Needed To Establish Product Defect


(1) FOURTH CIRCUIT FINDS EXPERT OPINION NEEDED TO ESTABLISH PRODUCT DEFECT

In Cantrell v. Weber, No. 01-1045, (June 26, 2002), the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals reviewed in an unpublished decision, the district court's granting of motion for summary for the defendant.

Sherry Cantrell was injured while using a portable gas grill manufactured by Weber-Stephen Products Co. (Weber). She and her husband, Ronald, brought a lawsuit against Weber alleging multiple theories of liability.

The Cantrells first opened the box containing the grill on July 17, 1997, the day before the accident. They found the grill to be fully assembled except for a handle they attached to the grill's lid.

No instructions were included. The grill did not come with a fuel source, so Ronald purchased two propane fuel canisters from Wal-Mart. On July 18, 1997, the Cantrells, their two children, and some family friends began an overnight camping trip on Garrett Island, Maryland. Ronald set up the grill on the beach and attached the pro-pane cylinder. He checked the connection for leaks by listening for gas and sprinkling water on the connection to check for bubbles. Ronald lighted the grill after a few unsuccessful attempts, and Sherry began cooking hamburgers and hot dogs. She placed the lid on the grill to speed the cooking. A few minutes later she decided to check on the food.

While she leaned over the grill, an explosion occurred and the lid of the grill was propelled upward, striking Sherry in the face and mouth. Sherry suffered injuries, including several cracked teeth, and left the island to seek medical treatment. Later that night, one of the Cantrells' friends used the same propane canister that had been attached to the grill as fuel for a lantern. He experienced no difficulty with the canister, but threw it away after all the fuel had been used up. The grill was apparently undamaged and is still in the possession of the Cantrells.

The Cantrells filed suit in the District of Maryland, alleging liability based on theories of strict liability, breach of the implied warranty of merchantability, and negligence against Weber and several additional defendants. The Cantrells produced no direct evidence of a defect in the grill, but argued to the District Court that a jury could reasonably infer the existence of a defect on the basis of circumstantial evidence that tended to eliminate other possible causes of the explosion. Similarly, they argued that a jury could infer that Weber had been negligent in its manufacture and assembly of the grill under the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur. Although the Cantrells retained an expert to examine the grill for evidence of defects, they declined to proffer the expert's testimony. Weber moved for summary judgment primarily on the ground that the Cantrells could not establish Weber's liability without expert testimony. The District Court granted the motion in an order and memorandum opinion dated November 30, 2000.

Applying Maryland tort law, the district court reasoned that without expert testimony addressing whether a defect in the propane canister could have caused the explosion, a jury could only infer the presence of a defect in the grill by engaging in "surmise, conjecture, or speculation." Jensen v. Am. Motors Corp., 437 A.2d 242, 245 (Md. Ct. Spec. App. 1981). Accordingly, the court rejected the Cantrells' arguments based on the theories of strict liability and breach of the implied warranty of merchantability. The district court also rejected the Cantrells' res ipsa loquitur argument. It reasoned that "the connection of the propane cylinder to the grill [was] an act sufficiently outside Weber's control to prevent application of res ipsa loquitur." The Cantrells appeal.

The Court of Appeals affirmed on the reasoning of the district court. See Cantrell v. Weber-Stephen Products Co., Civil No. CCB-99-2107 (D. Md. Nov. 30, 2000).

Mr. Lynch can be reached at Cozen and O'Connor, 501 West Broadway, Suite 1610, San Diego, California 92101, 800-782-3366 (voice), 619-234-7831 (fax), palynch@cozen.com (e-mail), http://www.cozen.com. Follow us on Twitter at @firesandrain.

Please direct comments, suggestions, stories, and other items to the author by e-mail at palynch@cozen.com

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