9th Circuit Warms to Defective Heater Claims

     (CN) – A heater unit responsible for destroying a Washington man’s boat may have been faulty, the 9th Circuit ruled Thursday, reviving a defective-design claim against manufacturer Webasto Products.

     The federal appeals panel in Seattle upheld a lower court’s $200,000 award to owner Curtis Oswalt for the burned-down boat, which he had named M/V Chug.
     The boat caught fire in 2006 while its heater was under repair at a marina in Anacortes, Wash. A repairman with Resolute Industries removed the heater’s burner unit and set it down briefly, believing he had cut its power. After leaving for 30 minutes to return to the shop, the worker returned to find the Chug was on fire.
     Oswalt and his insurance company sued Resolute for negligence and breach of contract. Finding that Resolute’s employee had failed to ensure that power to burner had been cut, U.S. District Judge Marsha Pechman ruled for Oswalt.
     Everyone involved agreed that the burner unit had caused the fire, so Resolute filed a third-party action against Webasto, an international manufacturer of heating, cooling and ventilation products for cars and boats. Resolute argued that the fire was caused by the heater’s defective design and inadequate warnings and instructions, and that the heater should have had an automatic shutoff.
     Judge Pechman disagreed and granted summary judgment to Webasto. She ruled that Resolute had failed to show evidence that a shutoff device would have been easy and cheap to add to the heater, and found that such a fail-safe was neither common in the industry nor required by regulations.
     On appeal, the three-judge panel reversed and sent the defective-design claim back to the District Court for another look.
      “Compliance with applicable safety standards does not insulate a manufacturer from defective product claims,” Judge Raymond Fisher wrote for the panel. “Furthermore, even though ‘it may be difficult for the plaintiff to prove that an alternative design could have been practically adopted’ when the defendant’s product is ‘the safest in use at the time of sale,’ this fact is not necessarily dispositive. If it were, there could be no first case demanding improvement of an unsafe (but widely accepted) product design.” (Parenthesis in original.)
      The panel also found that an expert witness had provided all the proof that Resolute needed to show that its proposed design modification would be easy to implement.
      The expert’s “description of the simplicity of the proposed design modification, together with the evidence that similar safety features are routinely included in home heaters, sufficed to raise a genuine issue of material fact,” the ruling states.

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