Products Liability Law Daily French press burn injury case proceeds on design, manufacturing defect theories
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Thursday, February 25, 2021

French press burn injury case proceeds on design, manufacturing defect theories

By Joshua Frumkin, Esq.

Failure to warn claim was rejected because the injured child’s parents admitted they had not read the product’s instructions.

In a case arising out of burn injuries sustained by a minor from the alleged shattering of a French press coffeemaker, a federal district court in California declined to grant summary judgment on most issues asserted by the mino-including strict liability design defect and manufacturing defect and negligent design and manufacture claims. Expert testimony offered by both parties was ruled admissible by the court and raised factual disputes precluding summary judgment. However, the court granted summary judgment on the minor’s failure to warn claim because her parents admitted that they had not read the product’s instructions, and, thus, the minor could not establish inadequate warnings (M.G. V. Bodum USA, Inc., February 24, 2021, Spero, J.).

A minor, proceeding through a guardian ad litem, brought suit against Bodum USA, Inc. for severe burn injuries she sustained when the Bodum brand 1-liter Chambord 8-cup French press coffee maker (French press) she was using allegedly fractured. The consumer's parents purchased the French press in October 2017 to replace their other French press coffee makers, including another Bodum French press. Neither parent saw nor read the instructions for the French press at issue. The French press contained an instruction booklet with warnings, which the consumer's parents admitted they did not read. The family made coffee with the French press every day until the incident. The parents had demonstrated to their daughter how to use the French press, and the father testified that his daughter had used it more than once before the incident. The family used fine ground coffee rather than course ground coffee as the product warnings instructed. The minor was ten years old at the time of the incident. On January 23, 2018, she alleged that she poured hot water into the French press before slowly pressing downward on the plunger. After about two seconds of pressing, the French press allegedly fractured, and the minor sustained burn injuries. The current product liability action was filed a year later. Both parties moved to exclude the testimony of the other's expert witnesses and for summary judgment or partial summary judgment in their favor.

Motion to exclude Bodum's expert testimony. The court denied the minor’s motion to exclude testimony by Bodum's expert witness, a specialist in materials and corrosion engineering. For expert testimony to be admissible under Rule 702 it must be based on the expert's scientific knowledge and be useful to the trier of fact. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit has held that the "scientific knowledge" requirement can be satisfied by showing that the expert relied on an objective source and followed the scientific method as practiced by a recognized portion of scientists in the field. For testimony to be useful to the trier of fact, it must have a valid scientific connection to the inquiry at hand. The court has a vital gate keeping duty under Rule 702 that is less pressing where, as here, the court is the trier of fact.

Bodum’s expert found that, based on tests of 20 "exemplar devices" provided by the French press maker, the thermal stress produced by boiling water, the pressure exerted by the plunger, and their combined force exerted on the glass would be insufficient to fracture the French press. The minor argued that the 20 exemplar devices tested were all different from the French press at issue. However, the court noted that Bodum’s expert took those differences into account in his analysis. Therefore, the court found the expert’s analysis of the exemplar devices was admissible. The court also rejected the minor’s argument that the expert had failed to test the pressure that would result from using finely ground coffee, which the family had used, or other forms of misuse, as the court was unconvinced that the expert’s opinion would not be useful to the trier of fact. As such, the court denied the motion to exclude Bodum’s expert’s testimony.

Motion to exclude minor’s expert testimony. The court also refused to exclude the minor’s expert testimony. The minor produced an expert in packaging and glass containers who opined that internal pressure caused the French press to break and that the pressure was associated with the excessively tight fit of the steel plunger, or piston, in the product. Further, based on an analysis of design documents from 1956 and documents from the Bodum's glass supplier, the expert stated that a design change by Bodum to reduce the thickness of the glass by 30 percent rendered it more vulnerable to breakage from internal pressure. He also considered evidence of past injury reports to support his assertion that Bodum did not have adequate quality testing programs for the glass it imports. Moreover, the expert stated that alternative plastic and metal designs which would have prevented the injury existed.

The court rejected Bodum’s challenges to the expert’s opinions. The court found that the opinion concerning causation was admissible because the expert applied scientific methods to calculate pressure at the time of fracture. The court rejected Bodum's argument that the expert admitted that scratches in the French press did not cause the incident. The expert had pointed to the scratches as evidence that the plunger exerted significant internal pressure on the French press. The court further held that the expert’s opinion that the thinner glass decreased the strength of the French press was admissible because he used information from the manufacturer's technical manual to support the opinion. In addition, the court said that Bodum's argument against testimony concerning safer alternative designs was frivolous, and it held that Bodum's other objections to the expert’s testimony should be raised at trial and not at this stage of the proceedings.

Summary judgment-strict liability design defect. The court would not grant summary judgment on the minor’s strict liability design defect claim. Under California law, a manufacturer or distributor is liable for a manufacturing or design defect that causes injury while the product is being used in a reasonably foreseeable way. There are two tests under California law for design defect: the "consumer expectations test," under which a product is defective in design if it failed to perform as safely as a consumer would expect when used in a reasonably foreseeable manner; and the "risk-benefit test," under which is consideration of the gravity of the danger posed by the challenged design, the likelihood that such danger would occur, the mechanical feasibility of a safer alternative design, the financial cost of an improved design, and the adverse consequences to the product and to the consumer that would result from an alternative design. The consumer expectation test applies when an ordinary consumer would be able to determine, based on his or her own reason and experience, that the product's design was unsafe. The consumer expectation test does not require expert testimony.

Bodum argued that the minor in this case failed to produce admissible expert testimony and, therefore, could not prevail on strict liability design defect or inadequate warning claims. However, the court did not exclude the minor’s expert testimony. Moreover, the court held that the case was governed by California's consumer expectation test which did not require expert testimony to be sustained.

In addition, the court declined to grant summary judgment to the minor on the strict liability design defect claim. Bodum’s affirmative defense did not fail as a matter of law, nor did the undisputed evidence establish the minor’s entitlement to judgment. If a consumer foreseeably misuses a product and is injured, the manufacturer is liable for that injury unless it provided an adequate warning. Although the court found that Bodum's affirmative defense of misuse failed as a matter of law, it also found factual disputes in the record as to the specific causes of the incident. Based on those factual disputes, the court declined to enter summary judgment for the minor on this claim.

Summary judgment-strict liability manufacturing defect. The court also rejected Bodum’s motion for summary judgment on the strict liability manufacturing defect claim. Products have a manufacturing defect when they deviate from the manufacturer's intended design. Here, the court found that the expert testimony as to the circumference of the French press’s plunger and as to the difference in glass thickness between differing models of the Bodum French press could support a judgment of manufacturing defect.

Summary judgment-negligent design and manufacture. The court also denied Bodum's motion for summary judgment on the minor’s negligent design and manufacture claims. Bodum challenged these claims on the same grounds as its challenge to the strict liability design defect and manufacturing defect claims, and the court dismissed them for the same reasons. Further, the minor presented sufficient evidence to create material disputes of fact that preluded summary judgment.

Summary judgment-strict liability failure to warn. The court granted summary judgment to Bodum on the minor’s failure to warn claim because the minor’s parents testified that they did not read the instructions. To prevail on a failure to warn claim, the claimant must establish that the manufacturer did not provide an adequate warning and that the inadequacy of the warning proximately caused the injury. Because the parents did not read the warning, it would be impossible for the minor to establish causation even if the warning was itself inadequate.

Failure to recall or retrofit. The court denied the motion for summary judgment on the failure to recall/retrofit claim. To prevail on such a claim, the minor had to establish that Bodum knew or reasonably should have known that the product was dangerous when used in a reasonably foreseeable manner. The court rejected Bodum's arguments that the minor failed to offer admissible evidence of a design defect or that Bodum had been on notice that its product was dangerous. The court pointed to admissible expert testimony concerning injury complaints to Bodum and that it is standard industry practice to investigate such complaints. The court held that this raised material disputes of fact that precluded summary judgment.

The case is No. 19-cv-01069-JCS.

Attorneys: Valerie Nicole Rose (Walkup Melodia Kelly & Schoenberger, APC) for M.G. Jason Allen Wheeler (Thompson Coburn LLP) for Bodum USA, Inc.

Companies: Bodum USA, Inc.

MainStory: TopStory DesignManufacturingNews WarningsNews CausationNews ExpertEvidenceNews HouseholdProductsNews CaliforniaNews

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