By Robert B. Barnett Jr., J.D.
The case boiled down to whether the jury would believe the homeowner’s experts that the valve was defectively designed or the manufacturer’s experts that the homeowner caused the flooding.
A homeowner’s products liability and breach of warranty suit against the manufacturer of a home pressure regulating valve (PRV), whose alleged failure caused more than $280,000 in damages to the home, will go to the jury on the issues of strict liability and negligent product design because expert testimony created two plausible scenarios for what caused the flooding, a Pennsylvania federal district court judge has ruled. Genuine issues remained on whether the flooding was caused by a design defect in the PRV or by the homeowner’s own errors in maintaining the home’s plumbing. Summary judgment, however, was granted to the manufacturer on all other claims for manufacturing defect, failure to warn, and breach of warranties (Kenney v. Watts Regulator Co., January 11, 2021, Kearney, M.).
Background. Leaks in two bathrooms caused flooding that severely damaged a private home. The home’s insurer, Allstate, paid just under $281,000 in damages. Water into the home was regulated by a water pressure regulator valve, which was designed to reduce the pressure of the water before it entered the house. The homeowner did his own plumbing maintenance, but he did not know that the house even had a PRV, which was supposed to be serviced annually. According to the homeowner, a flawed water regulator allowed the water pressure to build up excessively (triple the recommended water pressure level), which caused the toilets’ ballcock nuts to fracture and the bathrooms to flood.
The homeowner sued Watts Regulator Co., the PRV manufacturer, for strict liability (design defect, manufacturing defect, and failure to warn), negligence (design defect and manufacturing defect), and breach of express and implied warranties. During discovery, the homeowner produced two expert witnesses who said that the PRV was defectively designed because it was made of brass alloys rather than the much more effective copper alloys, which were then available and in use. The manufacturer also produced its own two expert witnesses, who opined that the flooding was caused by the homeowner’s overtightening of the ballcock nuts when he did his own plumbing repairs and by his failure to service the PRV regularly. The manufacturer moved to strike some of the homeowner’s expert witness testimony and for summary judgment on all claims.
Expert witnesses. The court concluded that the homeowner’s expert testimony satisfied the three requirements of Fed. R. of Civ. P. 702-qualification, reliability, and fit-on all issues on which the experts intended to testify, except for failure to warn. While the manufacturer seized on the experts’ alleged lack of expertise about proper product warnings, the court instead focused on the irrelevance of such testimony. The quality or sufficiency of the notice made no difference because the homeowner never saw the warning. Indeed, he did not even know that the PRV existed. Thus, no expert testimony would be allowed on failure to warn because warnings were irrelevant under these facts. However, the testimony would be allowed on all other matters.
Failure to warn. For the same reasons that the court denied the experts the right to testify on failure to warn, the court granted summary judgment to the manufacturer on the failure to warn claim. Because the homeowner never saw the warning, its sufficiency was irrelevant.
Manufacturing defect. The court also granted summary judgment to the manufacturer on the manufacturing defect claim, which requires evidence "that something went awry in the manufacturing process." The homeowner never produced any such evidence. This case remained at its core a design defect claim.
Design defect. According to the court, genuine issues in the design defect claim remained on: (1) whether the PRV’s failure resulted from a product defect; and (2) whether the increased water pressure caused the ballcock nuts to fracture. The homeowner’s experts created a plausible argument that the manufacturer should have manufactured the PRV with copper alloys. The manufacturer’s experts, on the other hand, created a plausible argument that the accident was caused by the homeowner’s maintenance errors and his failure to service the PRV. The court rejected the manufacturer’s argument that it was entitled to summary judgment because the PRV performed properly for 16 years, as no evidence actually existed as to how it had performed over those 16 years. No evidence, for example, existed from either side as to when the PRV stopped working. As a result, the motion for summary judgment was denied as to the design defect claim, under either a strict liability or a negligence theory.
Breach of warranties. The PRV came with an express one-year warranty, which had long since expired. Thus, the homeowner could not pursue a claim under a theory of breach of the express warranty. Turning to the claim for breach of the implied warranty of merchantability and fitness for a particular purpose, the court concluded that the PRV’s label included an adequate waiver of all implied warranties. The label stated: "THE COMPANY MAKES NO OTHER WARRANTIES EXPRESS OR IMPLIED EXCEPT AS PROVIDED IN THIS LIMITED WARRANTY." This was deemed sufficient to waive all implied warranties, including the warranty of merchantability and fitness for a particular purpose. Thus, the court granted summary judgment to the manufacturer on all breach of warranty claims.
Accordingly, the court granted the motion to exclude testimony in part and denied it in part, and granted the motion for summary judgment in part and denied it in part. The case will go to the jury on the defective design claims.
The case is No. 20-2995.
Attorneys: Kevin M. Kelly (De Luca Levine LLC) for Thomas Kenney. Vincent M. Roskovensky (Clark Hill PLC) for Watts Regulator Co.
Companies: Watts Regulator Co.
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