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Time May Not Tell – Court Permits Malfunction Theory for 20-Years-Old Product

October 21, 2022

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<p style="text-align: justify;">Just because a product was purchased almost 20 years ago, does not get manufacturers off the hook. In<em> <a href="https://www.wcmlaw.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/10/Smith-v.-Spectrum-Brands-Inc..pdf">Smith v. Spectrum Brands, Inc.</a>,</em> 2022 WL 3457822 (E.D. Pa. Aug. 17, 2022), plaintiffs brought a strict liability, negligence, and breach of warranty claim against the manufacturer and seller of a six-gallon aquarium tank that caused a fire and damaged the plaintiffs’ home.</p>
<p style="text-align: justify;">In 2002 or 2003, plaintiffs purchased an aquarium tank kit, including the pump motor. Plaintiffs used the tank a total of two years from the date of purchase until it burned in the fire in 2019. At other times it was stored and unplugged in a closet basement.</p>
<p style="text-align: justify;">The court denied defendants’ Motion for Summary Judgment as to plaintiffs’ claim for strict liability based on manufacturing and design defects. Defendants claimed that although the tank was used for only a total of two years, it was used intermittently over the course of sixteen years and used successfully during that time. However, the court responded that although the product was purchased approximately sixteen years before the fire, it was not in use for most of that time. Thus, a product’s prior successful use does not destroy the ability to utilize a malfunction theory for a strict product liability claim.</p>
<p style="text-align: justify;">Additionally, the court disagreed with defendants’ argument that plaintiffs could not proceed under the consumer expectations test because the product’s function was outside the experience of ordinary users, finding that jurors could readily assess the issue of unknowable and unacceptable dangers of the type of aquarium at issue.</p>
<p style="text-align: justify;">Manufacturers must be aware that a malfunction theory can be used to support a manufacturing defect claim when a product was purchased years, even decades, before an alleged defect, if the product was not used for most of the time from the purchase date up until the alleged defect.</p>
<p style="text-align: justify;">Thanks to Sarah Polacek for her contribution to this post. Please contact <a href="mailto:Haquino@wcmlaw.com">Heather Aquino</a> with any questions.</p>

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