Another Victory for the Defense when Suit was Filed Against "Alternative" Defendants

We here at Abnormal Use recently became aware of another successful motion for summary judgement for the defense in a products liability case where the Plaintiffs pled defendants “in the alternative.” See our prior post Filing Suit Against “Alternative” Product Manufacturers is Not Enough on Summary Judgment. This decision was from the state court in Crawford County, Kansas and involved three separate actions involving the same facts. Cabrello v. All Star Fireworks, Inc., et al., No. 2007-CV-164; Robinson v. All Star Fireworks, Inc., No. 2007-CV-165; and Roberts v. All Star Fireworks, Inc., et. al., No. 2007-CV-159.

On August 18, 2005, six individuals at Piedmont Display Fireworks and Fireworks Spectacular were tasked with loading a trailer full of boxes of pre-squibbed aerial fireworks shells. These shells were pre-squibbed with electric matches affixed to their fuses. As the boxes were being loaded, an explosion occurred and three of the six workers were killed. The Kansas Fire Marshal’s office concluded that the explosion was caused as a result of an ignition source inside the last box loaded into the trailer. Electric matches were identified as the source that ignited the fireworks shells. Plaintiffs, however, identified five different defendants that could have supplied the electric matches associated with the explosion.

Plaintiffs filed separate actions against these defendants for negligence, strict liability – product defect, and strict liability – failure to warn. Three defendants filed a motion for summary judgment arguing that Plaintiffs could not prove causation. Plaintiffs actually agreed that they could not prove which defendants’ product was involved but relied upon the theory of alternative liability in Section 433B of the Restatement (Second) of Torts that provides the following:

Where the conduct of two or more actors is tortious, and it is proved that harm has been caused to the plaintiff by only one of them, but there is uncertainty as to which one has caused it, the burden is upon each such actor to prove that he has not caused the harm.

This Kansas court found no cases that indicated that Kansas had adopted this rule and found that even if a Kansas court had adopted this rule, Plaintiffs could not meet the elements required by the theory. To satisfy the elements of the theory, a plaintiff must still prove that the defendants were negligent before any liability can attach. In this case, there was no evidence establishing what products were in the box that initiated the disaster. Therefore, Plaintiffs could not prove which defendant was negligent, and the court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants.

This opinion noted that 11 states had adopted the Restatement’s alternative liability theory. As in this case, even if a state has adopted the theory of alternative liability, plaintiff still might not survive a motion for summary judgment if he cannot identify what product caused the harm.

Comments

  1. David Schwartz says:

    The court got it exactly right. If two people each shoot at you and you can't prove whose bullet hit you, you can sue either or both of them. But if you can't prove which of two people shot a bullet at you, you can't sue either of them.

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