HP Adapter Isn’t ‘Unreasonably Dangerous’

     CHICAGO (CN) – A woman who was burned after she fell asleep next to the power adapter of her new Hewlett-Packard laptop cannot bring product liability claims against HP, the 7th Circuit ruled.
     Patricia Ferraro, a Chicago police officer, bought a new HP DV800 laptop in May 2006. A week later, after using it, she fell asleep on her sofa.
     While the laptop was charging on a nearby coffee table, its power adapter fell from the sofa arm to between the cushions. Ferraro awoke to painful burn blisters on her right arm from where her exposed skin had come in contact with the power adapter. She was treated for second- and third-degree burns in an emergency room the next day.
     Ferraro sued HP, claiming that a design defect caused the adapter to overheat. She claimed that HP failed to warn consumers about overheating and breached its implied warrant of merchantability.
     But U.S. District Judge Edmund Chang ruled for HP, finding that Ferraro would be unable to demonstrate that the power adapter was “unreasonably dangerous.”
     Illinois law prescribes two tests for determining unreasonable dangerousness.
     The “consumer-expectations” test asks whether the product “failed to perform as safely as an ordinary consumer would expect when used in an intended or reasonably foreseeable manner.”
     The “risk-utility” test assesses whether “the risk of danger inherent in the design of the product outweighs the benefits of the design.”
     Since “fall[ing] asleep while using the computer … is not the intended use of a power adapter … nor a use that is foreseeably similar to its intended use,” Chang rejected Ferrero’s consumer-expectations argument.
     He also determined that the risk-utility test favored HP.
     Ferrero’s failure-to-warn and implied warranty claims also failed because “there was no evidence that HP had special knowledge of the adapter’s propensity to burn consumers” and the adapter was not “unfit for the ordinary purposes for which the goods were used,” the judge found.
     Although “inclin[ed] to agree with Ferraro’s challenge to the district court’s consumer-expectations analysis,” the 7th Circuit affirmed.
     “The district court believed that Ferraro would be unable to prevail under [the consumer-expectations] standard, since ‘fall[ing] asleep while using the computer … is not the intended use of a power adapter,'” Judge Diane Wood wrote for the three-judge panel.
     “But we find this focus to be unduly narrow. … By taking such a restricted view of the precise manner in which Ferraro’s harm materialized, the court sidestepped the undisputed fact that, at the time of her injury, Ferraro was using the power adapter to do just what it was designed to do: charge her laptop.”
     Laptops are designed “to be used in comfortable places, including sofas, beds, La-Z-Boys, or other places where people may nod off,” the panel wrote.
     But even if Ferrero were to prevail on the consumer-expectations test, her claim would still fail because risk-utility “trumps” when both tests yield conflicting results. By failing to appeal Chang’s risk-utility determination, Ferrero waived the challenge.
     “Absent some argument to the contrary, we must accept that no reasonable jury could find for Ferraro under the risk-utility test, which is the approach upon which HP would be entitled to insist at trial,” Wood concluded.
     Judge Daniel Manion concurred. Agreeing that the risk-utility test trumps, Manion also backed Chang’s consumer-expectations ruling.
     “Ordinary consumers know that power adapters can become hot (including when laptops are used in beds and other comfortable places). … If HP’s power adapter could become so hot that it would quickly cause a user to react and withdraw, a jury would likely be entitled to decide whether the power adapter is ‘unreasonably dangerous,'” Manion wrote.
     “But the power adapter in this case merely ‘performs as safely as an ordinary consumer would expect.’ Therefore, given the unusual circumstances that caused the injury in this case, a reasonable jury could not find that the power adapter is ‘unreasonably dangerous.'”

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