The Supreme Court of Connecticut has held that although the “malfunction theory” permits plaintiffs asserting strict liability to prove a product defect based solely on circumstantial evidence when the product has been destroyed, plaintiffs must introduce sufficient evidence to link their injury to the product defect and show that the defect existed when the product left the manufacturer’s control. Metro. Prop. & Cas. Ins. Co. v. Deere & Co., 2011 WL 3505226 (Conn. Aug. 16, 2011).

In Deere, a fire destroyed part of a home that plaintiff insured. Fire marshals classified the cause of the fire as undetermined, but suggested that a tractor manufactured by Deere & Co. was likely a “significant factor.” Plaintiff subsequently brought a products liability action against Deere, claiming that a defect in the tractor’s electrical system caused the fire. A jury returned a verdict in favor of plaintiff.

The Supreme Court of Connecticut reversed and remanded with instructions to direct a verdict in Deere’s favor. Analogizing to the res ipsa loquitur doctrine used to infer negligence when direct evidence of a wrongful act is absent, the court held that when direct evidence of a product defect is unavailable because the product has been destroyed, the malfunction theory permits a jury “to infer the existence of a product defect that existed at the time of sale or distribution on the basis of circumstantial evidence alone.” However, the court noted, the “fact of a product accident does not necessarily establish either the existence of a defect or that the manufacturer is responsible, both of which must be proven in product liability cases.”

The court observed that a manufacturer generally “does not have control” of its product “at the time the injury occurs,” and that “product accidents often occur for a variety of reasons that do not indicate the existence of a defect.” Therefore, “an inference that an accident involving a product resulted from something attributable to the manufacturer” in cases based on the malfunction theory runs the risk of being “speculative.”

Declaring it “important that appropriate limitations be placed on the application of the malfunction theory,” the Supreme Court held that:

when direct evidence of a specific defect is unavailable, a jury may rely on circumstantial evidence to infer that a product that malfunctioned was defective at the time it left the manufacturer’s or seller’s control if the plaintiff presents evidence establishing that (1) the incident that caused the plaintiff’s harm was of a kind that ordinarily does not occur in the absence of a product defect, and (2) any defect most likely existed at the time the product left the manufacturer’s or seller’s control and was not the result of other reasonably possible causes not attributable to the manufacturer or seller.

The Supreme Court held that plaintiff failed to satisfy this test. Although plaintiff produced sufficient evidence to permit a jury to infer that the fire “started as a result of a failure in the tractor’s electrical system,” the evidence did not show that “any defect existed in the electrical system when the tractor left the defendant’s manufacturing facilities.” In so holding, the court cited evidence pointing to other potential causes of an electrical failure not attributable to Deere, such as improper maintenance or misuse, as well as the absence of any problems with the tractor’s electrical system during its first four years of use. Under these circumstances, “a reasonable juror would have to resort to speculation to infer liability” on the part of Deere.

The Connecticut Supreme Court’s decision is of broad importance to product manufacturers. The court’s acceptance of the malfunction theory—sometimes called the “general defect” or “indeterminate defect” theory—is in line with the Restatement (Third) of Torts: Products Liability § 3 (1998) and cases from many other jurisdictions. However, the court sharply limited use of the theory, making clear that it has at most limited relevance when the product at issue “was not new or nearly new when it malfunctioned” and that plaintiffs must offer evidence to exclude other potential causes for the accident.

For inquiries related to this Legal Update, please contact Stephen J. Kane at +1 312 701 8857.

For information about Mayer Brown’s Product Liability & Mass Torts group, contact Daniel L. Ring at +1 312 701 8520, Michael A. Olsen at +1 312 701 7120, or Henninger S. Bullock at +1 212 506 2528.