Hall v. Sunjoy Industries and Kmart: How NOT to litigate a products liability case

Growing up, we here at Abnormal Use were told more than once that one can learn more from failures than successes. If that’s the case, the perpetrators of one recent Florida lawsuit may have learned a great deal recently. See Hall v. Sunjoy Indus. Group Inc., No. 8:09-cv-2032-T-30MAP, 2011 WL 589830 (M.D. Fla. Feb. 18, 2011).

The facts are simple. Plaintiff Dorothy Hall sat on a patio chair displayed in the garden center at her local Kmart. The chair collapsed, causing her to allegedly suffer “various injuries, including a painful back condition.” Hall and her husband sued Kmart as the retailer, and Sunjoy as the alleged manufacturer on theories of strict liability for a manufacturing defect, negligence for failing to inspect and test the chair, and negligent failure to warn. They also sued Kmart on a fourth count, res ipsa loquitur for displaying the chair. Both defendants filed summary judgment motions on all counts, as well as a motion to dismiss based on the plaintiffs’ dishonesty during their depositions. The plaintiffs also filed a motion to establish a rebuttable presumption of negligence based on the fact that the chair was not preserved.

Here are the lessons that we can take from this case:

Lesson #1: Make Sure You Sue the Correct Manufacturer. This may be obvious advice, but these plaintiffs could have used it before facing the court on this issue. Apparently, Sunjoy was not the chair manufacturer. In fact, the record was undisputed as to that fact. In order to avoid Sunjoy’s motion for summary judgment, the plaintiffs filed a motion to voluntarily dismiss Sunjoy without prejudice. The court wasn’t buying their trick and remarked:

When the parties have expended considerable resources to fully develop a case, a court may infer that a plaintiff seeks a voluntary dismissal solely to avoid a pending motion for summary judgment.

In those cases, it is appropriate to do as this court did: deny the motion for voluntary dismissal without prejudice and grant the summary judgment motion.

Lesson #2: Hire the Necessary Experts. The plaintiffs’ first count against both defendants was a strict liability claim for a manufacturing defect. Step one in building such a case is to establish that there is, in fact, a defect. Expert testimony is necessary on this issue if the defect is latent, i.e., not obvious, as in this case. In fact, the plaintiffs needed to establish, through expert testimony, that the chair malfunctioned when it collapsed. While this may appear to be an easy question because the chair in fact collapsed, the court explained that “While the chair may have broken after Plaintiff sat on it, this does not automatically mean the chair ‘malfunctioned.'” The plaintiffs also sacrificed their design defect claim by failing to hire an expert who could provide expert testimony about whether or not testing or an inspection could have revealed a design defect. Finally, the plaintiffs’ negligent failure to warn claim failed because of a lack of expert testimony. “A claim that a warning is necessary and that the failure to warn rendered a product unreasonably dangerous and defective requires a warnings expert,” the court noted.

Lesson #3: Vet Your Clients Properly. The plaintiffs also filed a claim of res ipsa against Kmart. The court granted summary judgment on this claim for two reasons: First, the plaintiffs could not prove that the chair was in the store’s exclusive control because it was in the garden department where people, like Ms. Hall, could sit in it. Second, the court held that the plaintiffs had not presented “any evidence that the reason for the chair’s collapse was some act of the Defendants as opposed to Ms. Hall’s excessive weight” of over 350 lbs.

Even more on this point. The court’s opinion in this case included several footnotes alluding to the fact that both Mr. and Mrs. Hall appear to have perjured themselves, in either their depositions or in affidavits, or both. Not only is that a problem for them, but it could be a problem for their lawyers. It appears that the court did not find the legal theories any more admirable than the Plaintiffs, as evidenced by the reference to the Rule 11 motion which was filed by Sunjoy, based on the fact that Sunjoy was not the manufacturer of the chair.

Lesson #4: Keep the Evidence. The plaintiffs also filed a motion asking the court to grant them a rebuttable presumption of negligence based on the fact that Kmart didn’t preserve the chair at issue in the case even after a preservation letter was sent. Apparently, Kmart kept it initially, but discarded it after seven months, thinking the case was “old.” Because the court found no evidence of bad faith by Kmart, it denied the plaintiffs’ motion. Still, this is one of the cardinal rules of defending a products case: keep track of the evidence, or it may lead to a presumption of negligence later.

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