Great Northern Ins Co v. Dayton Electric Manufacturing Co. et al
ORDER denying 58 Motion for Summary Judgment. See the attached memorandum of decision. 60 Motion to Strike is granted insofar as the parties are in agreement, and it is moot otherwise in light of the denial of the motion for summary judgment. If there are any remaining disputed evidentiary issues, the Court will certainly consider motions in limine prior to trial. Signed by Judge Warren W. Eginton on 8/23/11. (Wilson, J.)
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
DISTRICT OF CONNECTICUT
GREAT NORTHERN INSURANCE CO.,
EMERSON ELECTRIC CO. ET AL.,
MEMORANDUM OF DECISION
Defendants Emerson Electric Co. (“Emerson”) and W. W. Grainger, Inc.
(“Grainger”) move for summary judgment in this action filed by plaintiff Great Northern
Insurance Co. (“Great Northern”). For the following reasons, Emerson and Grainger’s
motion for summary judgment will be denied.
Great Northern insured a home owned by Edward and Keiley Fuller in Darien,
Connecticut. While the home was undergoing renovation, the Fullers stored clothing,
linens, and other combustible materials in the attic on top of a 30-inch whole house fan
built into the attic floor. The fan was not equipped with a guard or cover, so the clothing
was in direct contact with the fan blades. The Fullers placed tape over the fan switch on
the second floor so that it would not be turned on. However, on June 15, 2006, the
switch was turned on and a fire resulted.
Emerson and Grainger manufactured and sold the fan and its motor as separate
parts to electricians and other contractors, not the general public. The fan was installed
in approximately 1985, and the motor was apparently replaced in approximately 1992.
The person who replaced the motor is unknown. After the fire, it was discovered that
the wrong type of motor had been used. The motor should have had thermal protection,
impedance protection, or an overload device, but it lacked those features.
The following warning was given on the motor used with the fan: “Motor contains
no thermal protector. Separate overcurrent protection must be provided to prevent
burnout and possible fire hazard from overload or stalled motor.” In addition, the box
containing the motor had a label indicating the lack of thermal protection, and the
installation instructions discussed the importance of thermal protection. The fan was
not marked with a warning, but the installation instructions included a general warning to
follow electrical and safety codes and to “guard all moving parts.” However, as noted
above, the fan was not equipped with a guard or cover.
Great Northern paid the Fullers nearly $2 million for the damage from the fire.
Great Northern then filed this subrogation action against Emerson and Grainger,
invoking this Court’s diversity jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1332. The complaint
alleges one count of product liability pursuant to Conn. Gen. Stat. § 52-572m et seq.
“The court shall grant summary judgment if the movant shows that there is no
genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a
matter of law.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a). “Only when reasonable minds could not differ as
to the import of the evidence is summary judgment proper.” Bryant v. Maffucci, 923
F.2d 979, 982 (2d Cir.), cert. denied, 502 U.S. 849 (1991).
The burden is on the moving party to demonstrate the absence of any material
factual issue genuinely in dispute. American Int’l Group, Inc. v. London Am. Int’l Corp.,
664 F.2d 348, 351 (2d Cir. 1981). In determining whether a genuine factual dispute
exists, the court must resolve all ambiguities and draw all reasonable inferences against
the moving party. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255 (1986).
If the nonmoving party has failed to make a sufficient showing on an essential
element of the case with respect to which the nonmoving party has the burden of proof,
then summary judgment is appropriate. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323
(1986). If the nonmoving party submits evidence that is “merely colorable,” there is
insufficient legal opposition to the motion for summary judgment. Anderson, 477 U.S. at
Emerson and Grainger first argue that Great Northern’s complaint is barred by
Conn. Gen. Stat. § 52-577a, which provides in relevant part that a product liability claim
must be filed within three years of the injury and no later than ten years after defendants
last possessed or controlled the product. The statute contains an exception to the tenyear rule if plaintiff can prove that the injury occurred during the “useful safe life of the
product.” § 52-577a(c).
There are several factors to be considered in determining whether a product’s
useful safe life has expired: (1) wear and tear or deterioration from natural causes; (2)
climatic and other local conditions; (3) the user’s policy on repairs; (4) representations
and warnings made by the seller about the product’s useful safe life; and (5)
modifications or alterations made to the product. § 52-577a(c). Those factors are
guidelines to assist in making a factual finding as to useful safe life. Moran v. Eastern
Equip. Sales, Inc., 76 Conn. App. 137, 142 (2003).
In the present case, it is undisputed that Emerson and Grainger parted with
possession and control of the fan and motor more than ten years before the fire. The
focus therefore shifts to the “useful safe life” exception. Emerson and Grainger argue
that the useful safe life of the fan and motor must have expired instantly upon the
Fullers’ decision to store clothing on top of the fan and to tape the fan switch in the off
position. However, Emerson and Grainger fail to cite any law supporting their
Great Northern has presented evidence indicating that the useful safe life of the
fan and motor had not expired at the time of the fire. For example, Great Northern’s
electrical engineering expert, Dr. J. Duncan Glover, opines that the fan and motor were
within their useful safe life because they had been used sparingly and had not
malfunctioned during the year leading up to the fire. Because there is a question of fact
as to the useful safe life of the fan and motor, the Court leaves Great Northern to its
proof. Summary judgment for Emerson and Grainger is not warranted on the basis of
Emerson and Grainger next argue that the warnings accompanying the fan and
motor were adequate as a matter of law. They emphasize that the fan and motor were
sold to electricians who should be knowledgeable about thermal protection. Emerson
and Grainger contend that Great Northern cannot prove causation because there is no
evidence that different warnings would have prevented the fire. Emerson and Grainger
further argue that the fan did not need to be equipped with a guard or cover because it
was manufactured for use in an uninhabited attic. Finally, Emerson and Grainger claim
that they are entitled to summary judgment because the Fullers misused the fan in a
way that no manufacturer could have anticipated.
In opposition, Great Northern asserts that the fan should have had a warning to
use only a thermally protected motor. The parties agree that the fan’s warnings did not
directly address the issue of thermal protection. Only the motor’s warnings addressed
that issue. Great Northern points out that the person who purchased and installed the
incorrect motor is unknown, so Emerson and Grainger should not be able to rely on the
assumption that a knowledgeable electrician must have been involved. Great Northern
also claims that the fan was defective because it was sold separately without a motor
and guard, thus permitting a situation in which the wrong motor could be used and a
guard could be absent. Great Northern suggests that the fan could have been designed
to fit only thermally protected motors. Finally, Great Northern argues that the Fullers’
actions were reasonably foreseeable because combustible material may be stored in an
The Court agrees with Great Northern that there are disputed issues of material
fact regarding the adequacy of the fan’s warnings and the fan’s alleged defects. The
fan’s warnings referred to electrical and safety codes but not specifically thermal
protection. A jury will need to determine whether the fan’s general warnings were
sufficient or whether a specific thermal protection warning should have been used.
Furthermore, Great Northern’s theory of liability goes beyond the warnings to the issues
whether the fan always should have been sold with a motor and guard rather than as
separate parts or whether the fan should have been designed to fit only the proper type
of motor. Although the Fullers’ actions may have been unwise, the issues raised by
Great Northern make the cause of the fire a question of fact for the jury.
Emerson and Grainger’s motion for summary judgment (Doc. #58) is DENIED.
Dated at Bridgeport, Connecticut, this 23rd day of August, 2011.
Warren W. Eginton
Senior United States District Judge
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