Product liability

Product liability
Order Description
Brown v. Rayfire Match Co. and Gonzalez

On April 23, 2007, Mary Brown took her four year-old daughter Heather on a walk in their Kenwood neighborhood in Minneapolis. Mary and Heather walked several blocks to a mom and pop corner store called “The Corner Store,” which is owned and operated as a sole proprietorship by Pedro Gonzalez. Pedro worked in the store when Mary and Heather arrived shortly after noon. Mary and Heather often visited the corner store on their walks, and both knew Pedro well. Mary routinely purchased milk and fresh bakery items from the store, and Mary usually got an ice cream bar for the walk home.
On that day, Mary walked to the back of the store looking for a gallon of milk, and Heather stayed in the front talking to Pedro. When Mary was unable to find a gallon of whole milk in the cooler, Mary called to Pedro asked him if he had any gallons in the back. Pedro replies that he did and left the front counter to get one for Mary. Heather remained by the front counter. While Pedro and Mary are in the back of the store, Heather stole two books of matches that were in a box sitting on the counter. Pedro left the box of book matches on the counter for people to pick up when they were buying cigarettes. Heather had often seen the matches when she visited the store, but this was the first opportunity she had had to grab them. She put them in the pocket of her shorts, and waited for Mary and Pedro to return. When they do, she accompanied Mary back home, dutifully eating the ice cream sandwich that Mary had purchased for her.
When they return home, Mary got to the kitchen to make some lunch for Heather. Heather walked out of the kitchen into the living room and opened the door to a closet under the master staircase. The Brown house is a beautiful old Victorian home with a huge winding staircase and a large, under the staircase walk-in closet. Heather went into the closet, turned on the light and locked the door. The closet door can be locked from the inside by simply turning a lever on the handle. A skeleton key is required to open the closet door from the outside. Heather surveyed the closet and noticed a stack of old papers in the corner. She went to the corner of the closet and bunched up some papers like she has seen Mary do when she lit a fire in the fireplace. Mary and Howard (Heather’s father), never left matches around the house. They only use stick matches and keep them locked up in an old vitamin bottle with a child- proof cap.
Heather takes one of the matchbooks out of her pocket and strikes a match. It fell on the papers and starts a fire. Because of the high ceiling in the closet, the fire caught quickly and got much bigger than Heather ever imagined. She attempted to blow on it to put it out, but it only burned more rapidly. In a matter of seconds, the closet became engulfed in smoke and Heather screamed for her mother. Mary came running, spotted the smoke coming out of the closet, and tried to open the door. Finding it locked, she yelled for Heather to unlock the door by turning the lever, but Heather is too frantic to respond. Mary cannot locate the skeleton key in the buffet by the closet, so she ran out to the garage, grabbed an axe and returned to the house. She told Heather to stand back; Mary chopped at the door until she was finally able to open it. By this time, Heather became severely burned on her legs and lower back. Mary called 911. The fire department responded; it put out the fire and an ambulance tookHeather to Hennepin General Hospital where she was treated for her burns, and then later, sent to the burn unit at Mayo Hospital in Rochester. She has first and second degree burns on her legs and back, requiring many skin grafts, resulting in tremendous pain and some permanent disfigurement.
The book matches stolen by Heather were manufactured by Rayfire Match Co., a Delaware corporation with headquarters and production facilities in Butte, Montana. Rayfire matches are manufactured with a new technology causing the initial striking of a match to result in a flame that they allege burns 30% hotter than any competing book match. Rayfire advertises that its matches “light the first time, every time.” They also advertise that their matches burn so hot that “it embarrasses the devil.” During preparation for litigation, the attorney representing Mary, Howard and Heather Brown discovers that the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC)had received 20 complaints from consumers about the Rayfire book matches. Consumers had complained that the flame on the Rayfire book matches burned so hot and large that it burned their fingers. But, no one had complained of any serious physical injuries similar to those received by Heather in this situation.
As a result of Heather’s injuries, Mary and Howard Brown retained Hopalong and Cassidy, a Minneapolis law firm specializing in product liability litigation. In investigating the accident, Gene Yus, the attorney assigned to the case, discovered that Rayfire matches have resulted in the complaints to the CPSC noted above, and that the matches in fact burn 50% hotter than any competing book match, and that the flame is 39% larger than the industry average. Yus retained an independent engineering firm to administer the tests that resulted in this determination. Yus also determined that Pedro Gonzalez had stopped Heather from taking matches from his counter on several occasions prior to the day in question. Yus also determined that several people had complained to Pedro about the location of the box of matches, but Pedro had not removed or secured them in response to this concern.
The Brown family files a product liability lawsuit against Rayfire and Gonzalez in federal district court in Minneapolis. In response to the lawsuit, Rayfire is represented by Bill Bully, an attorney with Tuff and Tuffer, a Minneapolis law firm specializing in the defense of product liability claims. Gonzalez is represented by Minnie Successes, an attorney for Grate and Moore, another Minneapolis law firm. In doing their research, these firms determined that the Rayfire matches do burn hotter, but the tests conducted by their independent engineering firm show that the matches burn only 30% hotter, and that the flame is only 20% larger than the industry average. Grate and Moore visit 50 convenience stores in Minneapolis and find that 19 of them have matches available at their counters, and that 11 of them leave them on the counter by the register in a location similar to where Gonzalez had placed his. The also determine that Heather would not have been able to reach the matches on Pedro’s counter unless she had gone behind the counter by the register. Her arms would not have been long enough to reach over the counter to the box of matches if she had remained on the customer side of the counter.
Based on these facts, Yus files product liability lawsuits against both Rayfire and Gonzalez. After the pleadings and some discovery is complete, Bully and Successes file a motion for summary judgment alleging that even if all the facts of the case are construed in the light most favorable to the plaintiffs, there is no recognized cause of action. They contend that matches are an inherently dangerous product that must be explosive to be useful. They also contend that there is no economically feasible way to design and package book matches in a way to make them completely safe. With respect to Gonzalez, Successes argues that he was following standard industry practices by having the matches in a location by the cash register that would be inaccessible to children on the customer side of the counter.

Yus responds by arguing that matches should never be sold in book match form. He argues that matches can be made safer by selling only stick matches in child proof containers similar to the one used by the Brown family in their home. He states that the Rayfire matches must be more dangerous than most because they burn hotter and larger. He also argues that Gonzalez was negligent for leaving matches on the counter since unattended children might go behind the counter and grab them.

After the hearing on the motion, Judge Decisive rules in favor of Rayfire and Gonzalez and dismisses the lawsuit. Yus appeals to the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals and alleges that the trial court erred with respect to Rayfire since:

1. Rayfire was negligent in the design, manufacture and packaging of the matches;

Rayfire was strictly liable by reason of its sale of a defective product; and

Rayfire breached its warranty of merchantability by manufacturing and selling these matches.

With respect to Gonzalez, Yus argues the trial court erred since:

Gonzalez was negligent in leaving matches on the counter;

Gonzalez is strictly liable for making defective matches available to the public; and;

Gonzalez breached the warranty of merchantability by allowing defective matches to get into the hands of the public.

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