Products Liability Law Daily Adverse admissions in deposition doom consumer’s claims against lawn mower maker
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Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Adverse admissions in deposition doom consumer’s claims against lawn mower maker

By Susan Engstrom

In a product liability action brought by a consumer who was injured when his riding mower caught fire, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in an unpublished decision ruled that the consumer failed to raise a fact issue refuting adverse admissions he had made during his deposition testimony regarding causation. Therefore, the manufacturer of the lawn mower was entitled to summary judgment (Chambers v. Troy-Bilt, L.L.C., April 25, 2017, per curiam).

According to the consumer, the lawn mower—which had been designed, manufactured, and marketed by Troy-Bilt, L.L.C.—exploded and caught fire while he was putting it back in his garage after cutting his grass. In his product liability action against the manufacturer, he alleged that the fire and explosion originated in the engine/fuel compartment of the mower. He sought recovery for his injuries, which included second- and third-degree burns that required multiple treatments, as well as damages for the contents of his garage. The manufacturer moved for summary judgment, arguing, among other things, that the consumer’s deposition testimony, which was contrary to the essential causation facts and elements of his product-related claims, qualified as a judicial admission.

Deposition testimony. During his deposition, the consumer testified that he had spent about three minutes mowing two strips of grass that remained after his wife had mowed the lawn the previous day. When he was done, he stopped the mower to wash it off. He waited two or three minutes, then turned the mower back on, drove it into his garage (a distance of about 30 feet), and turned off the engine. Soon after he entered his house, his wife asked him if he heard what sounded like a gunshot and if he was burning something. At that point, he re-entered the garage and saw that the lawn mower was on fire. He sustained burns while attempting to push it out of the garage.

According to the consumer’s causation expert, the fire was caused when gasoline released from the fuel tank vaporized and the vapors ignited when they came into contact with the hot engine exhaust components. However, the expert stated that if the consumer’s testimony regarding the events leading up to the fire were true, the hot exhaust components could not be a valid ignition source because they would not be hot enough to ignite the gasoline vapors.

The manufacturer argued that the consumer’s testimony was a judicial admission and, thus, he could not establish causation based on his expert’s testimony. However, the consumer asserted that his deposition testimony was an evidentiary admission. To establish a factual dispute regarding causation, he pointed to testimony by his wife that the lawn mower had run for nine or ten minutes. The district court granted the manufacturer’s motion for summary judgment [see Products Liability Law Daily’s September 21, 2016 analysis], and the operator appealed.

Fact issue. The Fifth Circuit found it unnecessary to determine whether the consumer’s testimony was a judicial admission or an evidentiary one. Even assuming that his statements were evidentiary, he failed to raise a fact issue refuting those admissions because his wife’s testimony was based on speculation. For example, when asked how long the conversation was between her and her husband, she was equivocal, stating initially that it was "about two minutes," and, later, that it was "three or four minutes." She also expressed uncertainty as to how long her husband had sat on the mower in the garage. At first she said, "for a few minutes," but then stated, "I don’t know how long it was," and, finally, "I’m guessing it was two, three minutes. It could have been a minute." In the court’s view, this type of speculation was not sufficient to create a genuine issue of material fact. Thus, the district court’s ruling in favor the manufacturer was affirmed.

The case is No. 16-11404.

Attorneys: Matthew J. Kita (Matthew J. Kita, Attorney at Law) for Terry Chambers. Peter Andrew Holdsworth (Wegman, Hessler & Vanderburg) for Troy-Bilt, LLC.

Companies: Troy-Bilt, LLC

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