Sunday, December 20, 2009

Compliance with CPSC Minimum Standards Does Not Automatically Relieve Product Manufacturer or Importer of State Common Law Liability

Nationwide Ins. Co. v. New York Lighter Co., Inc.
(2nd Dept., decided 12/15/2009)

Nationwide and its policyholders, Frank and Allison Maloney, commenced this action after a fire destroyed the policyholders' home.  The fire was accidentally started by the Maloneys' then-four-year-old son, who allegedly obtained a beer-bottle-shaped lighter from his mother's purse and ignited the lighter in the living room.

Plaintiffs sued the lighter's alleged manufacturer, New York Lighter Company, Inc., and retailer, contending, among other things, that the lighter's design was defective because the lighter was not child-resistant.  New York Lighter Company moved for summary judgment dismissing the complaint against it.  Dutchess Supreme denied the motion. 

In MODIFYING the order and granting that part of New York Lighter Company's motion that sought dismissal of the plaintiffs' breach of express warranty cause of action, the Second Department held:
In support of its contention that the lighter at issue was not defectively designed, NYL refers to documents and deposition testimony reflecting that, in 1997—four years before the fire that led to this action—its imported bottle-shaped lighters met the minimum standard for cigarette lighters set by the federal Consumer Products Safety Commission. Contrary to NYL's contention, however, "compliance with this minimum standard [does not] automatically relieve a manufacturer or importer of state common law liability" (Colon v BIC USA, Inc., 136 F Supp 2d 196, 208; see Liquore v Tri-Arc Mfg. Co., 32 AD3d 905; Mercogliano v Sears, Roebuck & Co., 303 AD2d 566). In light of NYL's failure to make a prima facie showing of entitlement to judgment as a matter of law with respect to the design defect issue, the burden of proof never shifted to the plaintiffs, and summary judgment was properly denied (see Alvarez v Prospect Hosp., 68 NY2d 320, 324).

The plaintiffs' claims predicated on breach of the implied warranties of merchantability and fitness for a particular purpose also properly survived the motion (see Bradley v Earl B. Feiden, Inc., 8 NY3d 265, 273).

NYL, however, was entitled to summary judgment dismissing so much of the third cause of action as alleged a breach of an express warranty. In response to NYL's denial that an express warranty was made to the Maloneys, the plaintiffs failed to raise a triable issue of fact (see Weiss v Polymer Plastics Corp., 21 AD3d 1095, 1097; Davis v New York City Hous. Auth., 246 AD2d 575, 576; cf. Catalano v Heraeus Kulzer, Inc., 305 AD2d 356, 358).

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