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New York: New York Civil Law
New York Court of Appeals Decides on Summary Judgment Standard Regarding Products Liability Claim
By Matthew Lerner
Earlier this month, the New York Court of Appeals vindicated Justice Perradotto's dissenting opinion in Ramos v. Howard Indus. Inc. In Ramos (COA opinion), the Court of Appeals addressed the novel issue concerning the burden a manufacturer has on summary judgment to make a prima facie showing that no manufacturing defect existed where the product has been spoliated.
The plaintiff in Ramos commenced a products liability action seeking damages for injuries he allegedly sustained when a transformer designed and manufactured by the defendant exploded. Initially, the plaintiff reported to his employer and doctors that he was injured when he reached out of an aerial bucket while installing the transformer on a utility pole. The plaintiff later claimed that his injuries occurred as a result of the transformer explosion, but at that time the transformer could not be located for inspection or testing concerning the cause of its failure.
In support of its motion the defendant manufacturer proffered evidence that its transformers generally were designed and manufactured under state of the art conditions according to power company's specifications and complied with all applicable industry standards. The evidence also demonstrated that the transformer which allegedly exploded and injured the plaintiff would have been individually tested to ensure compliance with customer specifications and industry requirements.
The Appellate Division, Fourth Department Majority agreed with the trial court that the defendant manufacturer did not meet its burden on summary judgment because it merely pointed to gaps in the plaintiff's proof.
Justice Perradotto dissented, offering a well-reasoned opinion on the impossible standard the Majority required of a defendant in defending a circumstantial products liability case where the product was missing.
In its decision earlier this month, the Court of Appeals explained that the defendant, without benefit of the actual transformer, met its burden on the summary judgment motion. With respect to the plaintiff's burden, the Court concluded:
Plaintiff failed to present evidence excluding all other causes for the transformer's malfunction not attributable to defendant such that a reasonable jury could find that the transformer was defective in the absence of evidence of a specific defect. Although a plaintiff is not required to identify a specific defect in a circumstantial case, plaintiff's theory here -- that the explosion resulted from a manufacturing defect in the form of an "internal electrical fault" -- is pure speculation.
A read of Speller v. Sears, Roebuck & Co. nicely complements this decision
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