Seventh Circuit Rejects Claim Based On Overheating Laptop Power Adapter

Okay, surely we all know not to fall asleep next to computer equipment that is plugged in and powering up, right?  No? Well, let’s talk about Ferraro v. Hewlett-Packard Co., 721 F.3d 842 (7th Cir. 2013). In that case, the Plaintiff fell asleep next to her laptop, and as she slept, she allegedly suffered injuries because the laptop’s power adapter allegedly overheated (as she slept). Of course, she sued.

In the interests of fairness, here are the specific facts as recited by the Seventh Circuit itself:

[W]hile sitting on her sofa and using her laptop, she noticed that the battery was running low. Ferraro shut down the laptop, placed it on a nearby coffee table, and plugged the laptop’s power cord into the wall. Midway along the cord is the power adapter, a brick-shaped plastic device housing a transformer, which converts AC electricity from the outlet into DC electricity used by the laptop. Ferraro propped the power adapter on the arm of her sofa, began reading a book, and fell asleep around 10:00 p.m.

At some point during the night, the power adapter slipped from the sofa’s arm, falling between the cushions. As Ferraro slept, the exposed skin of her right forearm came to rest against one of the adapter’s surfaces. It is unclear how long Ferraro’s skin was in direct contact with the adapter, but she eventually awoke with painful blisters at the point of contact.

“Slipped from the sofa’s arm,” eh? As you might expect, her claims were of the typical design defect, failure to warn, and breach of implied warranty of merchantability variety. As the court described it, the Plaintiff “alleged that the laptop was defectively designed because it ‘overheat[ed] during normal and foreseeable use’ and that it lacked ‘adequate or sufficient warnings.'” The district court granted summary judgment for the manufacturer, but the Seventh Circuit affirmed only begrudgingly (and not without great sympathy for the Plaintiff). On the design defect claim, the Seventh Circuit noted:

[L]aptops are designed precisely to be used in comfortable places, including sofas, beds, La–Z–Boys, or other places where people may nod off. By taking such a restricted view of the precise manner in which Ferraro’s harm materialized, the court sidestepped the undisputed fact that, at the time of her injury, Ferraro was using the power adapter to do just what it was designed to do: charge her laptop. Ferraro is not arguing that the power adapter overheated when she tried to use it to heat her blanket, or that it made for a poor drink coaster or paperweight; rather, she asserts that it was unreasonably dangerous when used for its intended purpose.

Well, we’re not sure that laptop chargers are designed to be placed precariously on the arm of a sofa upon which its user may ultimately fall asleep while undertaking another tasks altogether on said sofa (i.e., reading a book). The charger, of course, charges, but the user of the charger must surely consider where the charger is placed prior to using it, no? The Seventh Circuit had an answer for that, as well:

HP may be correct that Ferraro was not using the product in the precise manner intended by the manufacturer, insofar as the power adapter was designed to rest on a flat surface with ample ventilation, but this is beside the point. The appropriate inquiry for the consumer-expectations test is whether the product performed as safely as an ordinary consumer would expect when used in =an intended or reasonably foreseeable manner. The great virtue of a laptop is that it can be used on one’s lap, while sitting on a sofa, or perhaps while in bed. Indeed, we note that the Facebook page for “Using the laptop in bed” (Mission: “Public awareness of the usage of laptops in bed”) has nearly one million “Likes.” Our analysis would be no different if the power adapter had started a fire in the sofa while Ferraro was in the next room; in either case, the consumer’s use of the product would be the same. A jury could conclude that Ferraro was using the power adapter in a “reasonably foreseeable” manner when the relevant harm occurred.

(Quotations and citations omitted).

A Facebook group cited as persuasive authority? Really? How did that end up in the opinion? Take a look at that Facebook page and you’ll see the danger of citing to unofficial Facebook groups as authority. (Now, perhaps we would feel differently if the Facebook group were entitled “Precariously placing a laptop charger on the arm of a sofa while sleeping,” but we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.).

Okay, so here’s the question: With such sympathy for the Plaintiff coming from the court, how did the defendant prevail? I mean, how does the defendant come back from that type of commentary?

A fatal appellate error, that’s how. Behold the following remarks made by the Seventh Circuit at the very beginning of its opinion in this matter:

The court concluded that Ferraro would be unable to show that the power adapter was “unreasonably dangerous,” a required element of her design defect claim. Under Illinois law, there are two alternative methods of establishing that element: the “consumer-expectations test” or the “risk-utility test.” The district court found Ferraro’s evidence insufficient to meet her burden under either one of them. On appeal, Ferraro argues that the district court erred only in concluding that she would be unable to prove unreasonable dangerousness under the consumer-expectations test. She has not challenged the district court’s determination that HP was entitled to summary judgment under the risk-utility test, nor has she appealed the district court’s dismissal of her defective warning and implied warranty claims. This puts her in an impossible bind. Under Illinois law, the risk-utility test “trumps” in design defect cases if the two methods of establishing unreasonable dangerousness yield conflicting results. Because the district court’s finding that she could not succeed under the risk-utility test furnished an independent and unchallenged ground for the decision, we affirm.

Oh, well.

Comments

  1. Joseph Reinckens says:

    I think there still would be the problem of the unit getting caught between cushions. Resting on a sofa, etc., and even falling off may be reasonably foreseeable, but cushions are excellent insulators that allow extra heat buildup. At some point the chain of causation has to be too attenuated to impose liability.

    What if it had fallen on the floor and her dog happened to have eaten some bad food, happened to vomit on the converter, that shorted it out, etc., etc? Yes, it’s foreseeable, but let’s be real.

    My view would be that “caught between cushions” would sufficiently break the chain of causation.