In Mehner v. Furniture Design Studios, Inc., 2023 WL 2351688 (D. Neb. Mar. 3, 2023), the court granted summary judgment on product defect claims by a plaintiff allegedly injured by the collapse of a restaurant chair eight years after the manufacturer delivered it. This well-reasoned decision reminds us that even for fairly simple products, expert proof may be required to establish a defect – and failure to develop the factual predicate in discovery may leave the plaintiff without an opinion (and without a case). It also highlights important limitations in the “malfunction theory” that sometimes allows a plaintiff to proceed without expert proof or identification of a specific defect.
Plaintiff was eating at a restaurant in Omaha when his chair allegedly collapsed. He sued Furniture Design Studios (FDS), which designed, manufactured and sold the chair, asserting strict liability and negligence design defect claims.
During discovery, the plaintiff identified only healthcare providers as experts but stated he would inspect a specimen of the chair and supplement his expert disclosure. But he never requested a specimen from the defendants.
Addressing FDS’ motion for summary judgment, the court noted that the plaintiff did not identify a specific defect or explain how it caused the chair to collapse. The plaintiff argued that standards adopted by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) applied, but he failed to connect those standards to the failure or his injury. Although the standards were “not rocket science,” the court said, their application to the failure of this chair still required expert testimony to explain, and the plaintiff had none.
The court also rejected the “malfunction theory” as a means to prove a defect circumstantially without expert opinion or identification of a specific defect. That theory allows plaintiffs in some cases to plead and prove that the accident (a) is one that normally would occur only if the product is defective, and (b) was not solely the result of some cause other than a defect existing when the product was sold or distributed. The court pointed out that this rule is narrow and has never been applied to a design (as opposed to a manufacturing) defect in Nebraska.
The theory is intended to address cases in which direct evidence of a defect is unavailable after a product failure, but the court was not persuaded that was the case here. (One could easily identify potential sources of evidence about design defects such as design documents or analysis of an identical specimen – like the one plaintiff said he would examine but never requested.) Failure to develop evidence, the court pointed out, is not the same as showing it is unavailable. And the court was skeptical the theory could apply to establish a defect in existence when the chair was sold, given that the accident occurred eight years later.
The court readily dismissed the plaintiff’s complaints that he could not marshal the necessary evidence because FDS gave evasive discovery responses, pointing out that the plaintiff never moved to compel.
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