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Breaking Legal Developments

11-26-2001

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

 

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY:      This weekly newsletter covers:

  1. Alaska Court Affirms Verdict For Defendant Stove Manufacturer
  2. Florida Court Affirms Minors Arson Conviction
  3. Connecticut Court Finds No Liability for Hotel Clerk Related to A Fire


(1) ALASKA COURT AFFIRMS VERDICT FOR DEFENDANT STOVE MANUFACTURER

In Bierra v. Dickinson Manufacturing, Co., S-948, (Nov. 23, 2001), the Alaska Supreme Court reviewed a jury verdict in favor of a stove manufacturer. Albert Bierria sued Dickinson Manufacturing after his fishing boat caught on fire and sank, alleging that the fire had been caused by a design defect in the boat's Dickinson stove. The jury concluded that the stove was defective but, despite Bierria's testimony that he had properly installed and maintained the stove, also concluded that the defect had not existed when the stove left Dickinson's possession. On appeal, Bierria argues that the jury's verdict was unsupported by the evidence, given his allegedly uncontroverted testimony that he had properly installed and maintained the stove.

As neither Bierria nor Dickinson argued that some third party should be held responsible for the defect in the stove, the jury's verdict that the stove was defective apparently compels one of two conclusions: Either Dickinson was responsible for the defect, or Bierria was. Bierria contended that because Dickinson --allegedly -- did not controvert his testimony that he had properly installed and maintained the stove, there was no evidentiary basis for the jury's implicit conclusion that Bierria, rather than Dickinson, was responsible for the defect in the stove. Dickinson argued that Bierria's testimony that he properly installed and maintained the stove was controverted, and also argued that the jury was in any event entitled to reject Bierria's claims.

As an initial matter, there was evidence in the record that challenged Bierria's claim that he properly installed and maintained the stove. At trial, Bierria admitted that he ran fuel to the stove through a rubber hose instead of through copper tubing. Not only did the stove's instruction manual arguably require the use of copper tubing, the jury also heard testimony that rubber lines are generally not appropriate for marine use. Given this evidence, the court could not conclude that the jury's verdict that the defect in the stove arose after it left Dickinson's possession, presumably because of some fault of Bierria, was "plainly unreasonable and unjust."


(2) FLORIDA COURT AFFIRMS MINORS ARSON CONVICTION

In N.K.D. v. State, case no. 1D01-1027, case no. 1D01-1335, Court of Appeal of Florida, First District, November 16, 2001, reviewed the minor's arson adjudications. They challenged the findings claiming insufficient evidence.

The fire started in a barn that the juveniles had entered without authority. After the fire, both girls denied having anything to do with the fire. Later, one girl admitted they started the fire but thought they had put it out. On appeal, they claimed the damage was accidental. The court disagreed noting when first questioned they denied involvement with the fire. The evidence showed they started the fire and part of the barn was damaged before they attempted to put it out. That was sufficient under Florida law for the arson adjudication.


(3) CONNECTICUT COURT FINDS NO LIABILITY FOR HOTEL CLERK RELATED TO A FIRE

In Gomes v. Commercial Union, (pdf Format) SC 16457 (Nov. 20, 2001), the Connecticut Supreme Court reviewed the trial court's granting of summary judgment for the defendant. A guest at a hotel heard a sound of breaking glass and went to the window of her hotel room. She saw someone breaking in to a nearby gas station. She contacted the hotel desk clerk to notify the police. The clerk said she would take care of it, stating the gas station had an alarm system. The station was not equipped with an alarm system. The clerk was again contacted by other guests stating they smelled smoke but the clerk still did not act. The gas station sustained damage and the fire was later determined to be arson.

The owners of the gas station filed suit against the hotel and others. The trial court found no duty owed by the defendants and entered judgment for them. The Supreme Court of Connecticut reviewed the action noting the plaintiffs sought to impose liability based on intentional and negligent prevention of others from rendering aid. The court affirmed, noting the clerk did not physically prevent the guest from using the telephone and did not threaten the guest with bodily harm or a lawsuit if she persisted in her efforts to contact the police. There was no active intervention on the part of the clerk that prevented the guest from calling the police. The guest was not unable to succeed in her attempt to summon aid for the plaintiffs. In fact she later called the police herself.

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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