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Product Liability Claims Often Rely on a Pattern of Negligence
The family of a little girl killed when her family’s minivan burst into flames will be allowed to bring present evidence of previous similar fires in their product liability claim.
We know that in these cases, establishing a history or a pattern can be critical to the success of the case.
In Funkhouser v. Ford Motor Co. Inc., the Virginia Supreme Court recently ruled that the family may introduce evidence of other dangerous fires in the Ford’s Windstar minivan model, a van that was later recalled. That decision reverses a previous ruling by a lower court.
Based on court filings on the case, here is what we know:
The Funkhouser family had twin 3-year-olds, a boy and a girl. In May 2006, the little girl was inside her parents’ 2001 Ford Windstar minivan, which was parked in the family’s driveway. The vehicle burst into flames. The little girl suffered third-degree burns over 80 percent of her body. She was transported to the hospital, where she later died. Her twin brother was also inside the vehicle, and though he was injured, he survived.
Upon investigation, it was discovered that the van’s engine was not on, and in fact, the key wasn’t even in the ignition.
The girl’s father contends that Ford was negligent and had breached its contract with consumers by failing to warn consumers of a history of dangerous fires. He says the fire started in the vehicle’s dashboard, and points to seven similar fires involving Windstars that were manufactured in the five-year period between 1998 and 2003.
Ford, however, has countered that one of the children started the fire while playing with the cigarette lighter.
And this is why that pattern of fires becomes so important. Absent the evidence of other similar fires in this model of vehicle, Ford might successfully argue that this was a single, tragic incident that resulted from innocent child’s play and poor supervision. In other words, it was not something the company could have foreseen and therefore there was no duty to warn parents.
However, if the family can establish that not only were these fires caused by an inherent manufacturing design flaw, but that similar incidents happened to other consumers in varying circumstances, their case is further bolstered.
While there were seven fires that the Funkhouser’s knew of involving Windstars, the court ruled they could only present evidence of four. Of course, more is better in this case, but four is better than none.
An expert witness for Funkhouser plans to testify that the fires started in the instrument panel of the vehicle, most likely in the vicinity of the cigarette lighter and the controls. The cause, that expert maintains, is the ignition of combustible materials by heat that was generated by an “abnormal and undesired” electrical malfunction. Further, the witness intends to testify that no action by the occupants (i.e., the children) was responsible for the fatal blaze.
While the lower court ruled the previous fires were inadmissible, the state’s supreme court ruled that decision had been reached in error and reversed. The case is expected to move to the trial phase within the next six to nine months.
The Ferraro Law Firm provides comprehensive legal services, including product liability representation. Call (888) 554-2030 for a free and confidential consultation. Offices in Miami, Washington, D.C., and New York City.
Funkhouser v. Ford Motor Co. Inc., Justia Dockets
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Product Liability Watch: Lax Standards for Medical Devices, April 19, 2012, Product Liability Lawyers’ Blog