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Charles M. Cavanagh Roseanne Scully v. Electrolux Home Products

October 17, 2012


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Timothy R. Rice U.S. Magistrate Judge


Plaintiffs Charles M. Cavanagh and Roseanne Scully Cavanagh have sued Defendant Electrolux Home Products for negligence, breach of warranties, strict liability, and interference with their right of peaceful enjoyment of their real property. Electrolux now seeks summary judgment. For the following reasons, Electrolux's motion is denied on the counts of negligence and strict liability and granted on the counts of breach of warranties and interference with plaintiffs' right of peaceful enjoyment of their real property.*fn1

I. Background In 1998, the Cavanaghs purchased a Kenmore dehumidifier (the "Dehumidifier")

designed, manufactured, and distributed by Electrolux.*fn2 See 6/16/2012 R. Cavanagh Dep. at 29 (Ex. A to Def.'s Mot. for Summary Judgment (doc. 42-3), Ex. B to Pls.' Resp. (doc. 48-5)); Am. Compl. ¶ 3 (doc. 15). That same year, the Dehumidifier was mounted in a wall cut-out in the basement of the Cavanaghs' home in Berwyn, Pennsylvania. See 6/16/2012 R. Cavanagh Dep. at 33-34, 61-62. The Dehumidifier remained in that location and worked without problems for approximately twelve years. See id at 70, 94.

Around 9:00 a.m. on May 12, 2010, Mrs. Cavanagh turned on the Dehumidifier and left it running all day. See id. at 114-15. Mrs. Cavanagh left the house around 6:00 p.m. and returned around 7:45 p.m. to see smoke coming from the back of the house. See id. at 115-22. Shortly thereafter, the fire department arrived and extinguished the fire. See id. at 130-31.

Reports prepared by the Radnor Township Fire Marshal and the Pennsylvania State Police state that the fire originated in and around the Dehumidifier. See Radnor Twp. Fire Marshal Report (Ex. A to Pls.' Resp. (doc. 48-4)), Pa. State Police Fire Investigation Report/Worksheet (Ex. C to Pls.' Resp. (Doc. 48-6)). According to the Radnor Township Report, "the ignition factor was a failure in the dehumidifier [although] we were unable to determine whether it was an electrical or mechanical failure." The Pennsylvania State Police Report states: "investigators believe that there was some type of electrical breakdown or mechanical failure of the dehumidifier."

II. Discussion Summary judgment is appropriate where "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). An issue is "genuine" if "the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). A factual dispute is "material" if it "might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law." Id. Where there is only one reasonable conclusion from the record regarding the potential verdict under the governing law, summary judgment must be awarded to the moving party. See id. at 250. "If reasonable minds could differ as to the import of the evidence, however, a verdict should not be directed." Id. at 250-51.

A. Negligence - Count IV To establish negligence, a plaintiff must show: (1) a duty or obligation recognized by law, requiring the defendant to conform to a standard of conduct; (2) the defendant's failure to conform to that duty, or breach; (3) a causal connection between the defendant's breach and the plaintiff's injury; and (4) actual loss or damage by the plaintiff.*fn3 See Atcovitz v. Gulph Mills Tennis Club, Inc., 812 A.2d 1218, 1222 (Pa. 2002). In a product defect case, a plaintiff must establish the second and third elements of this test by showing her injury was proximately caused by "a specific defect in the manufacture or design of a product."*fn4 Brandon, 34 A.3d at 110; see also MacDougall v. Ford Motor Co., 387 A.2d 676, 678 (Pa. Super. 1969) ("[A] plaintiff asserting liability on grounds of negligence must connect injury with a specific defect in the manufacture or design of a product."),overruled in part on other grounds by REM Coal Co., Inc. v. Clark Equip. Co.563 A.2d 128 (Pa. Super. 1989). This burden is necessary "because [negligence] liability hinges upon whether the accident could have been avoided by the exercise of reasonable care." Brandon, 34 A.3d at 110; see also MacDougall, 387 A.2d at 680.

The Cavanaghs have produced an expert report from Michael E. Wald, an electrical engineering consultant from IEI Consulting, who opines the Dehumidifier's defrost thermostat was defectively manufactured:

[I]t is the conclusion of IEI's investigation, to a high degree of scientific certainty, that the cause of this fire was the catastrophic failure of a defectively manufactured defrost thermostat.

IEI Consulting Rpt, 2 (Ex. E to Pls.' Resp.). Wald explains a default thermostat may degrade and fail because of: (a) a "slight misalignment of the switch contacts" or (b) insufficient "contact pressure" placed on the contacts "when the switch is manufactured." Id. at 2. He states:

The defrost thermostat in this humidifier is basically a switch that responds to temperature. In this particular design the defrost thermostat is directly in the circuit supplying operating power for the compressor and is thus subjected to the full load current of the compressor when the switch opens and closes (cycles). If properly manufactured this thermostat will dissipate heat properly during each of these cycles and operate reliably for at least the useful life of the product - 15 to 20 years. However if there is some slight misalignment of the switch contacts or the contacts do not have sufficient contact pressure when the switch is manufactured then excess heat will be created as the switch cycles and this component will gradually degrade. Over a period of years this degradation will get worse and worse until ultimately the integrity of the switch will be so badly compromised that the switch components will begin arcing and erode the structure of the switch until the internal components arc to the metal case of the thermostat itself.

Id. Wald further explains the degradation of the defrost thermostat can produce large amounts of molten metal, which can ignite plastics within the dehumidifier, causing a fire:

Because this component is operated at 120 volts and there is no upstream overcurrent or ground fault protection, the failure of the steel case can produce large amounts of molten metal. Molten steel has a temperature of over 2800 degree Fahrenheit. Plastics within this dehumidifier which are located just below this thermostat will ignite at temperatures of about 800 degrees Fahrenheit. ...

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