Proof of Purchase: Need Adequate Support that an Alleged Seller Indeed Sold the Defective Product

A recent opinion from the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Alabama highlights how the failure to identify the seller of a defective product can lead to dismissal.

In Jackson v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., No. 2:17-cv-00634-AKK (N.D. Ala.) the court was faced with a plaintiff who was severely burned when a gasoline container exploded and caught fire. At the time, the plaintiff was burning a small pile of debris in his backyard and poured gasoline from the container onto the flames. This led to an ignition of the gasoline inside the container.

The plaintiff properly identified the manufacturer of the container as Blitz USA, Inc. The specific defect alleged was the containers lacked a flame-arrestor to prevent ignition, which allowed the gasoline to ignite and explode. However, the manufacturer entered bankruptcy several years prior, in part, because of liability arising from similar lawsuits and the plaintiff would be unable to recover from it.

Without a viable manufacturer to pursue, the plaintiff focused his attention on the presumed seller, Wal-Mart. However, Wal-Mart challenged its liability and claimed that the plaintiff was unable to plausibly establish that the subject container was indeed purchased from Wal-Mart, instead of some unknown seller. The court was faced with deciding whether there were sufficient facts to establish more than a “mere possibility” that the container was purchased from Wal-Mart. Ultimately, the plaintiff failed to meet its burden.

The facts the plaintiff relied on to support his contention were shaky at best. In providing a history of the subject container, the plaintiff explained that it was given to him by his father who allegedly purchased it from Wal-Mart. The only support he could provide that his father purchased it from Wal-Mart was (1) Wal-Mart sold the containers during the relevant time period; (2) his father purchased “everything” from Wal-Mart; and (3) Wal-Mart was the only seller within 40 miles of where his father lived who sold the type of container at issue. Importantly, the plaintiff did not testify that his father claimed to purchase it from Wal-Mart, but was instead relying entirely on circumstantial evidence for this contention. Recognizing that the container could have been purchased from another retailer near his home, or before the father moved to the town, or borrowed from someone else and never returned, the court determined that the plaintiff failed to show that it was more than a “mere possibility” that Wal-Mart was the seller.

At the end of the day, it’s important to recognize that a plaintiff requires some reasonable evidence to support a contention that a certain seller did in fact sell the product. Here, we see an extreme example of a plaintiff lacking meaningful support for claiming who sold a particular product. This case highlights the importance of building a strong foundation when alleging the product was purchased from a certain seller.

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Utah – Filing Suit in Name of Carrier Confirmed

In July of 2016 Leslie Hulburt and I reported that the Utah Appellate Court recently issued a decision, if read out of context, could be used to suggest that a subrogation case in Utah must be brought in the name of the insured. See Wilson v. Educators Mut. Ins. Ass’n., 2016 UT App 38.  The Wilson court was considering a case where subrogation was being sought by an insurer that had made medical payments to a victim in a car accident. The negligent driver had a policy limit of $100,000. In addition to the subrogating carrier, the victim’s parents had claims against the driver.

A petition for review of the Wilson decision was been submitted and granted by the Utah Supreme Court.  The Supreme Court reversed the Appellate Court in a published decision on September 28, 2017.  The Court discussed and upheld Equitable and Contractual Subrogation rights of the insurer.

The Court found that the law of equitable subrogation, the insurer’s right to stand in the shoes of the insured after payment is made, is well established in Utah.  This principal was reaffirmed by Utah Code section 31A-21-108 which states that “subrogation actions may be brought by the insurer in the name of the insured.”  The Court went on to say that this statute does not prohibit an insurer from suing in its own name.  However, equitable subrogation places limits or conditions on the insurer such as the insured’s “right to first recovery (made whole)” and “splitting a cause of action.” These limitations can be modified by contract.

The Court found that an insurance contract between the insured and insurer can modify equitable subrogation limitations by allowing the insurer to sue in its own name and proceed with recovery before the insured is made whole.

The take away – insurers can sue in their own name or that of the insured in the State of Utah.

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Negotiation Strategies for Subrogation Cases Simplified from a Toddler’s Point of View

Toddlers are indeed the best of the best when it comes to negotiating. Every parent is put to the test when it comes to enforcing the rules and avoiding temper tantrums. Even the savviest of attorneys have caved when dealing with their kids. There are some lessons we can learn from these little, but fierce negotiators.

First is the slow game. This is when the parties are very far apart on coming to terms on a settlement and one party is only moving in the smallest of increments towards a compromise. This is similar to the toddler who keeps asking for another bed time story. Of course, the toddler wants to drag out bedtime as long as possible. It doesn’t seem like he has a number of stories in mind, except the infinite “one more.”

It is Plaintiff’s counsel’s role to identify and understand the approach in order to play it successfully. Plaintiff must not make large jumps in negotiating. Plaintiff’s counsel must demand that Defendant reiterate and clarify his position at each step. Most importantly, Plaintiff must have patience. If the Defendant wants to take it slow, with patience, you might get to your goal.

The second toddler strategy is when they only take a couple bites of their vegetables at dinner, but refuse to eat them all. In cases where liability is unclear, evidence is missing or has been spoiled, persons of interest are unavailable, and/or there are other legal bars, evidentiary issues, or time limits to prevent a full recovery, obtaining some recovery, even if nominal, is a win. Especially considering the costs to the client.

Some Defendants recognize that litigating the matter is not worth their time, but that some liability for the loss can be placed in their corner. If the Defendant offers a nominal settlement (i.e., cost of defense offer), Plaintiff’s counsel will advise the client on the costs and benefits of pushing the case further. Plaintiff’s counsel never wants to needlessly waste a client’s money, time, or resources on litigation where there are significant weaknesses in a case.

Lastly, if a Defendant digs his heels in, standing firm on denying liability, this is basically the toddler equivalent- the “nut-uh” defense. While the Defendant can sit at a mediation with his arms folded across his chest, Plaintiff’s counsel will lay out on the table a well prepared case of facts, evidence, and charm. With articulating the theories of liability, presenting the evidence step by step, providing expert reports, photographs, diagrams, etc., Plaintiff’s counsel can successfully convince the mediator of Defendant’s liability without another word uttered from the Defendant.

Just like a parent equipped with a bag of treats, subrogation counsel has mastered these negotiating strategies; however, communication with the client is key.

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“What’s in a name?” William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, act 2, sc. 2

The United States Congress passed the Carriage of Goods by Sea Act in 1936. The purpose of COGSA was to establish a standardized set of definitions and rules to govern the terms and conditions used in ocean bills of lading. One of its key provisions, Section 4(5) limits a vessel’s liability for lost or damaged cargo to USD 500 on a per “package” basis; however COGSA failed to define the term “package.”

Generally, when a bill of lading unambiguously describes a unit of packaging that can be reasonably construed as a package, a court will accept the bill of lading’s package definition as a COGSA package. Litigation issues arise, however, when bills of lading are unclear, imprecise, or ambiguous. Shippers and carriers have been heavily litigating this issue in the 80 years ever since COGSA was passed. Furthermore, inasmuch as it was written decades before the rise of containerized transport, COGSA simply does not address whether ocean containers themselves are “packages.”

Typically, the Second Circuit, the leading circuit on this issue, did not recognize containers as packages. Beginning with Judge Friendly’s pronouncement that containers rarely qualify as packages more than four decades ago, the Second Circuit views any claim that a container is a COGSA package with considerable scepticism. Monica Textile Corp. v. S.S. Tana, 952 F.2d 636, 1992 AMC 609, (2d Cir. 1991); Leather’s Best, Inc. v. S.S. Mormaclynx, 451 F.2d 800, 1971 AMC 2383 (2d Cir. 1971) (Friendly, C.J.). As a result, courts following the Second Circuit’s analysis will see little persuasive power in a bill of lading’s boilerplate statement that ocean containers will be considered COGSA packages. See generally Monica Textile Corp., 952 F.2d 636. In addition to boilerplate pronouncements, the factual circumstances behind how individual items are “wrapped, bundled, or tied” inside the container will not, without more, sway courts following the Second Circuit to rule that ocean containers are COGSA packages. Mitsui & Co., Ltd. v. Am. Exp. Lines, Inc., 636 F.2d 807, 822, 1981 AMC 331 (2d Cir. 1981) (Friendly, C.J.).

Notwithstanding the foregoing, the Second Circuit has at times ruled that containers can be packages: “if the bill of lading lists the container as a package and fails to describe objects that can reasonably be understood from the description as being packages, the container must be deemed a COGSA package.” Binladen BSB Landscaping v. M.V. Nedlloyd Rotterdam, 759 F.2d 1006, 1015, 1985 AMC 2113 (2d Cir. 1985). See also Peter Rosenbruch v. Am. Exp. Isbrandtsen Lines, 543 F.2d 967, 1976 AMC 487 (2d Cir. 1976), cert. denied, 429 U.S. 939, 1976 AMC 2684 (1976).

In an August 2017 decision in the SDNY, the rationale behind the “container=package” was again reiterated and upheld. In Mapfre Atlas Compania de Seguros S.A. a/s/o Tecnomega v. M/V Loa and Compania Chilena de Navigacion Interoceanica SA and Genshipping Corp., Docket 15 CV07876, (decision attached), District Judge Sweet looked at the Bill of Lading, and under the “No. of Pkgs.” Column, the number “1” was clearly indicated. Next, looking to the “Description of Packages and Goods” column corresponding to that single package, the Bill of Lading said “1*40’HC Container S.T.C. [Said to contain]” with “989 Pieces Computer Parts.” Since the Bill of Lading did not indicate how the computer pieces were packaged, the Court held that the container itself was one package and limited liability to $500.

Thus, in this case, the use of the word “pieces” had liability consequences amounting to thousands of dollars.

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Instant Inverse

Until recently, inverse condemnation remained a relatively arcane area of California law. A spate of wildfires, spawning litigation by homeowners and their subrogating insurers, has breathed new life into this liability theory.

Inverse condemnation is an eminent domain action initiated by the property owner, rather than the government. Essentially, it is unintended eminent domain-i.e., the defendant did not intend to condemn/damage your property, but, having done so, is now required to pay the fair market value of the damaged property. Its underpinnings are found in Article I, section 19 of the California Constitution which prohibits private property from being taken or damaged for public use without just compensation.

California law mandates that the liability issues in an inverse case be tried by the Court, reserving damages to the jury. Further, as inverse is a Constitutional remedy (as opposed to a tort theory) a finding of fault on the part of the defendant is not required in a fire case. Other than in so-called “water/flood cases” (where the rule of reasonableness applies), inverse is essentially a strict liability cause of action. Unlike a dangerous condition of public property case, an inverse condemnation case does not require the timely filing of a government claim or notice to the public entity of a dangerous condition. As an added incentive, California law statutorily permits recovery of reasonable attorney’s fees and expert costs in inverse condemnation cases.

Recognizing the Court’s role in determining inverse liability, the California legislature in 2001 enacted Code of Civil Procedure section 1260.040. That statute permits either party to move the Court for a ruling on any evidentiary or other legal issue determining the right to compensation. Procedurally, the motion must be heard no later than 60 days prior to commencement of trial on the issue of compensation and must be heard by the trial judge.

Although there is a dearth of legal authority interpreting this statute, Dina v People ex rel. Dept. of Transportation (2007) 151 Cal. App. 4th 1029 provides excellent insight into its scope. The Dina court, in affirming the granting of a motion under 1260.040, held that the Court is permitted to make a liability determination and weigh the evidence to adjudicate that issue. In so holding, the Dina court differentiated a 1260.040 motion from a summary judgment motion-i.e., a triable issue of fact will not defeat the 1260.040 motion. This distinction is, of course, extremely important as it provides the trial judge an excellent opportunity to dispose of inverse liability issues without the necessity of a bench trial with live witnesses.

Our office recently prevailed against a public utility on a 1260.040 motion in a case seeking damages in excess of $10,000,000. Now that the liability issue has been adjudicated in our client’s favor, we are in an extremely strong negotiating position at the upcoming Mediation.

In any case involving damages caused by equipment owned and maintained by a utility (power lines; transformers; water mains), an inverse condemnation cause of action should be pursued. The 1260.040 motion is an important arrow in the quiver of plaintiff attorneys in inverse condemnation cases. That arrow will likely hit the bullseye, resulting in an outstanding result for your client.

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Privileged Communications Inadvertently Given to Opposing Counsel by a Party’s Expert

In a recent opinion from the United States District Court for Kansas, the Court held that privileged communications given by an expert to opposing party’s counsel will remain protected under the work product privilege.

The defendant’s expert in Lloyds of London Syndicate 2003 v. Fireman’s Fund Ins. Co. of Ohio accidentally included in his expert disclosure an otherwise privileged email between himself and defense counsel. Upon discovery the defendant’s attorney attempted to assert privilege over the communication, and plaintiff’s counsel refused—arguing that any privilege had been waived by its disclosure.

Prior to the expert’s deposition he produced a copy to opposing counsel of his written report, as required under FRCP 26(b)(2)(B)—however, he inadvertently included a series of emails between himself and defense counsel discussing the report. During the expert’s deposition, defense counsel recognized the privileged email was disclosed and immediately alerted plaintiff’s counsel of the privileged nature. Plaintiff’s counsel refused and claimed that the email’s privileged protections were now waived by the disclosure.

The Court applied a five factor test to determine whether the disclosed information maintained its privileged status, or whether the disclosure waived these protections. The five factors looked at: (1) the reasonableness of precautions taken to prevent inadvertent disclosure; (2) the time taken to rectify the error; (3) the scope of discovery; (4) the extent of disclosure; and (5) the overriding issue of fairness. This test is applied in consideration of Federal Rule of Evidence 502(b), which states that privileged materials inadvertently disclosed do not lose their protection so long as the producing party took reasonable steps to prevent disclosure and rectify once disclosure occurs.

Plaintiff’s counsel argued that the five-factor test should not be applied under these circumstances because the disclosing individual was a testifying expert—as opposed to an attorney. The Court rejected that argument and instead held “it does not matter who inadvertently produced the information only that someone inadvertently produced it.” The court went on to state, “Although [defense] counsel could have monitored [defendant’s expert]’s culling [of privileged materials from his expert disclosure] more closely, the court nonetheless finds counsel’s actions reasonable,” and privilege was not waived.

Ultimately, the court’s holding maintains that even when an expert inadvertently discloses an otherwise privileged communication, the party has not necessarily waived its right to privilege. Whether privilege can be maintained is dependent on satisfying the five factor test, and not necessarily on who may have disclosed the communication.

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Fidget Spinners Don’t Relieve Stress (When They Catch Fire)

One of the newest fads to hit the market place is the fidget spinner. It’s the palm sized three-eared triangular device with ball bearings that can be spun quickly when held between the thumb and index finger. They are promoted to relieve stress, enable children with attention problems to better focus on tasks, and provide mindless fun.

As originally marketed, it was only slightly more sophisticated than that other timeless fad, the Pet Rock. Now, however, fidget spinners have gone high tech. You can get a fidget spinner with LED lights which illuminate when you spin it. You can also get one which has built in speakers and is bluetooth enabled so you can listen to music played on your cell phone or other compatible device.

The speaker version comes equipped with a USB port for charging.

There have now been multiple reports of the high tech fidget spinners erupting into flames while charging. In one instance a consumer reported that after less than 30 minutes of charging, the spinner exploded, and in another case the spinner was charging for under 45 minutes when it burst into flames. The Consumer Products Safety Commission is investigating these incidents.

There are no reported fires started by the Pet Rock.

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Wildfire Awareness with CAL FIRE’s “Ready for Wildfire” App

Annually, the first full week of May is known in California as “Wildfire Awareness Week”. This provides CAL FIRE the opportunity to highlight the importance of wildfire prevention and preparedness.

This year, with fires on the rise in California, CAL FIRE has launched a phone app to prepare individuals for the next wildfire. The app “CAL FIRE – Ready for Wildfire” can assist in preparing for a wildfire before it happens and alert you when a wildfire breaks out in your area. The main features of the app include tips and checklists to maintain your defensible space, to create an action plan, and to know what to do when a wildfire strikes.

This is an educational tool, but also an emergency alert system. When you add a location or multiple locations (city for your home, business, family, etc.), you can receive alerts on your phone when a wildfire strikes in the area. You can also have the phone track your location and receive alerts when a wildfire strikes in an area you are traveling in.

This app seems to be a viable tool to provide timely, helpful information and resources if you have to evacuate due to a wildfire.

The news release can be found on the following link:
http://calfire.ca.gov/communications/downloads/newsreleases/2017/2017_App_RSG_Launch.pdf

The app can be downloaded from the App Store or Google Play Store under Cal Fire.  Additional information can also be found at www.readyforwildfire.org.

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Subrogation Rights Under Oklahoma’s Workers’ Compensation Act

In 2011, the Oklahoma legislature overhauled the state’s workers’ compensation system, even going so far as to change the name of the law to “The Oklahoma’s Workers’ Compensation Code”. Portions of the new law were challenged and Oklahoma courts struck certain provisions of the new law after finding they were unconstitutional.

Still seeking to reform their state’s workers’ compensation system, the Oklahoma legislature went back to work and, on May 6, 2013, Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin signed into law Title 85A of the Oklahoma Workers’ Compensation Act. Title 85A, designed to reform the state’s workers’ compensation laws and ultimately replace existing Title 85, establishes an important date for health care and subrogation professionals to consider when handling these claims in Oklahoma. Injuries occurring prior to February 1, 2014 will be governed by old Title 85, while injuries occurring on or after February 1, 2014 will be subject to new Title 85A

The new law allows an injured employee to recover benefits under the Act while simultaneously filing a claim against a third-party. The employee is required to give the employer/carrier notice of the third-party lawsuit and provide the employer/carrier the opportunity to intervene. Once placed on notice, the employer/carrier must intervene in order to protect its subrogation rights.

Section 43 of the new Act also provides a statutory formula which governs the distribution of any third-party recovery. First, reasonable attorney’s fees and costs of collection are deducted from the recovery. Next, the employer/carrier receives either two-thirds (2/3) of the remaining recovery or its entire amount of its workers’ compensation lien, whichever is less. The remaining balance will be paid to the injured party or their dependents.

Importantly, the old Act required a carrier to pay a pro-rata share of the employee’s attorney’s fees and the costs incurred in recovering against the third party. However, for injuries occurring after February 1, 2014, the Act makes no reference to a carrier’s obligation to contribute toward the employee’s attorney’s fees or costs. It appears the application of the above formula is intended to replace the pro-rata apportionment.

The new Act imposes a similar set of rules to govern actions initiated by an employer/carrier. When an employer/carrier seeks recovery from a third-party responsible for the injury or death, the employer/carrier must notify the injured employee of its intention to do so. Specifically, written notice must be sent to the injured employee advising them of their right to hire a private attorney to pursue “any benefits to which the claimant is entitled in addition to the subrogation interest”. If the employer/carrier recovers against the third party, the injured employee is entitled to any amount of recovery which is in excess of the subrogation lien, after reasonable costs of collection are deducted.

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Count Me Out! Considerations in Determining Whether to Opt Out of a Class Action Lawsuit

A class action lawsuit claiming a product defect is used to recover damages for a large group of people harmed by the product. When receiving notice of a class action that may involve a product in one or more of your cases, you do have some decisions to make. If you have concerns that the amount of damages awarded to each claimant is too small, then you will need to determine, if available, if you wish to “opt out.” Each claim and each class action presents different factors that should be considered when determining whether to opt out. The size of the claim and the type of damages sought by the class action are two of the most important factors to consider.

• The claim is substantially larger than the typical class members’ claim

One benefit of a class action is that it allows for litigation of small claims that would not otherwise be economically feasible to pursue. The compilation of these small claims can result in a very low recovery amount to each class member. When the amount of a subrogation claim is substantially larger than the typical class members’ claim, and the amount of the claim justifies the cost of litigation, it is generally more effective to opt out of the class and pursue an individual claim against the manufacturer. Further, class action lawsuits are oftentimes pursued for many, many years, meaning that any recovery in an individual lawsuit will likely be received long before any recovery in a class action lawsuit.

• The class damages are limited

Oftentimes damages sought in a class action lawsuit are limited to the cost of replacing or repairing the defective product. This excludes the cost of repairing the damages the defective product caused, which is generally the larger, insured claim. In that situation, if the claim is not excluded from the class action by opting out, any claim for additional property damages will be barred by the legal defense of res judicata. Any additional property damages then become non-recoverable, so special attention should be paid to the opt out date noticed in a class action lawsuit.

It is important to consider each loss independently in determining whether to opt out of a class action lawsuit. Although the amount of the claim and the type of damages being pursued are some of the most important factors to consider, attention should be given to the particular facts of the case and the provisions of the order certifying the class action.

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