Appeals court affirms $1.3 million judgment in lawsuit against Whirlpool for fire started by defective refrigerator

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by Jay Pate

A fire destroyed the Russell’s home in Missouri in February 2010. The Russells were out of town and no witnesses to the fire were reported. Firefighters responded to the scene, tried to extinguish the fire and gave up after ninety minutes. The State Fire Marshal was not called to investigate the origin and cause of the fire because the house was “too far gone.” Indeed, the fire at the Russells’ home was a “total burn.”

The Russells retained Larry Giggy, a certified fire investigator in Missouri, to determine the origin and cause of the fire, and Carl Martin, a registered professional engineer, to perform a cause investigation and engineering analysis. They ultimately concluded the fire started in the refrigerator.

The Russells filed suit against Whirlpool, alleging the fire was caused by a defective refrigerator. The jury found in favor of the Russells and returned a verdict for $1,377,550.00. Whirlpool appealed.

Under circumstances like this, Missouri law allows a plaintiff to prove his claim by “circumstantial evidence.” The plaintiff must offer evidence that: (1) tends to eliminate other possible causes of the injury or property damage, (2) demonstrates that the product was in the same basic condition at the time of the occurrence as when it left the hands of the defendants, and (3) the injury or damage is of a type that normally would not have occurred in the absence of a defect in the product.

Whirlpool argued the Russells’ experts could not eliminate possible alternative causes of the fire. According to Whirlpool, the Russells’ experts did not consider or could not eliminate other electrically-powered devices inside the Russells’ home as causes of the fire, and thus the Russells cannot show the evidence tends to eliminate possible causes other than the refrigerator.

According to the court of appeals, the question was whether the circumstantial evidence presented by the Russells was strong enough to allow the jury to infer, without resort to speculation, that the refrigerator contained a defect at the time it left Whirlpool’s control and that caused the fire. The court of appeals decided the evidence was strong enough. Russell v. Whirlpool Corporation, No. 12-1451 (8th Cir. Dec. 17, 2012).

The refrigerator was found at the bottom of the debris and was burned more significantly than any other appliance, suggesting it experienced the hottest and fastest burn. The side of the stove and microwave adjacent to the refrigerator was burned more substantially than the other side of those appliances, suggesting the fire spread to those appliances from the refrigerator. The metal in the compressor became very thin, a sign of extreme heat. In fact, the heat was so extreme that it burned completely through the steel in the compressor panel, but did not burn through the same panel nearer to the top of the refrigerator.

Given the compressor’s location in the interior of the refrigerator, it would have been protected from isolated heat exposure had the fire started outside the refrigerator. The power was off in the compressor compartment at the time of the fire, which is consistent with an electrical malfunction within the compressor compartment. The power to the other appliances, however, was on at the time of the fire, suggesting the fire did not begin in these appliances or the breaker panel. Finally, the Russells heard a strange noise emanating from the refrigerator in the days before the fire occurred.

The court of appeals found that although this evidence did not compel the jury to find for the Russells, the evidence was strong enough to support reasonable inferences in favor of the Russells without resort to speculation. The court determined that Whirlpool’s argument that the Russells cannot eliminate other possible causes of the fire merely created a fact issue that the jury resolved at trial. Thus, the district court did not err when it denied Whirlpool’s motion for judgment as a matter of law.

HO&P & Defective Product Litigation

To successfully bring a claim involving a defective product, clients need an experienced, educated attorney on their side. They also need an attorney with the financial resources to take the case to trial. At Heygood, Orr & Pearson, we have tried hundreds of cases to verdict and have settled hundreds more.

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If you have suffered a serious economic or personal injury or a loved one has suffered a serious injury or death as the result of the actions of a defective product, you may have a claim for compensation. Contact the lawyers at Heygood, Orr & Pearson for your free case evaluation and to learn more about your legal right to compensation. You can reach us by calling toll-free at 1-877-446-9001, or by filling out the free legal consultation form on this page.

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Michael Heygood, James Craig Orr, Jr. and Eric Pearson were selected to the Super Lawyers List, a Thomson Reuters publication, for the years 2003 through 2012.