A Primer On New York Product Liability Law

Michael Hoenig’s Product Liability column in The New York Law Journal, “Complexities Abound In Product Design Claims” (January 11, 2010), provides an excellent primer  on the law of product liability in New York state and a good discussion of the leading cases. (NYLJ.com requires a subscription to access. If you cannot download the article, Mr. Hoenig  will post the article within a couple of weeks on his law firm’s web site).   Mr. Hoenig devotes the body of his article to a recent Appellate Division, First Department decision, Chow v. Reckitt & Colman Inc., 2010 NY Slip Op 00013 (App. Div., 1st Dept., Jan. 5, 2010).  There, a split First Department upheld the trial court’s grant of summary judgment to the defendant manufacturer of of a drain cleaner called "Lewis Red Devil Lye", which blinded the plaintiff during an attempt to unclog a floor drain in the kitchen of the restaurant where he worked.  Applying the Court of Appeals standard in Voss v. Black & Decker Manufacturing Co, the court examined the ‘risk-utility balancing’ calculus, which often lies at the heart of a defective design product liability inquiry. In addition to Mr. Hoenig’s “refresher” survey of the law of product design liability, he directs his readers to the commentary issued by the Committee on Pattern Jury Instructions of the Association of Justices of the Supreme Court of the State of New York, particularly PJI 2:120. For further reading, a thoughtful discussion of PJI 2:120 appears in a 2008 article "New  Design-Defect Jury Instructions: Catching ‘Denny’ " by Stephen R. Blacklocks, a partner in Hunton & Wiliams’  New York office.  As Mr. Hoenig states in the conclusion of NYLJ article, “Mastery of the legal principles – our survey merely scratches the surface – is indispensable in perfecting one’s advocacy.”  When your client next assigns you a new case for  you to defend, take a few minutes to review Mr. Hoenig’s primer to remind yourself just how many hurdles plaintiff’s counsel needs to overcome to make out a prima facie case of design defect. 

Spoliation Defeats Innocent Landowner’s CERCLA Claim

Innis Arden Country Club is a well-run country club located on beautiful acreage in Old Greenwich, CT. that has operated for over 100 years. Close friends of mine are members–the food is good, the golfers congenial, and laughing children run barefoot across the pool deck in good weather.  Club members had been stunned to learn in 2004 that PCB contamination had been discovered on the golf course property, not far from where an industrial company, Pitney Bowes, had once conducted operations on an adjacent parcel in Stamford.  The country club’s environmental consultants determined that Pitney Bowes was the source of the contamination, which Pitney Bowes denied, and that PCBs from the Pitney Bowes property had migrated by way of storm water and surface water runoff to Innis Arden.  What no one could dispute was that the country club had not placed the PCBs on the golf course–it was what CERCLA characterizes as an "innocent landowner". On June 26, 2009, the federal district court in Connecticut dismissed Innis Arden’s complaint prior to trial and affirmed a prior sanctions award against the country club. Innis Arden Golf Club v. Pitney Bowes, Inc. et al. Case No. 3:06 cv 1352 (JBA), 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 54135.  Something had gone terribly wrong!  But what?

Pitney Bowes retained Hunton and Williams, a law firm with a strong reputation in environmental litigation to defend the case.  In a July 2009 Client Alert, the law firm attributed Innis Arden’s dismissal to its consultant having destroyed the key evidence that allegedly linked the PCB’s at the country club to their client.  Without being able to perform tests on the actual soil samples the consultant had taken, Pitney Bowes would be unable to refute the consultant’s claim that the PCB’s on the golf course were identical to PCB’s identified on the Pitney Bowes’ site, it alleged.  As the Alert points out, the Court’s spoliation ruling is a strong reminder of the obligations of parties and their experts to impose a litigation hold and to ensure that tangible evidence, such as as a soil sample taken to the lab for testing, is preserved.  Central to the court’s ruling was that the soil sampling in question had been undertaken in preparation for litigation.  As the Magistrate Judge had earlier ruled "……counsel was actively involved in the investigation and analysis of the samples in preparation for legal action……"  Sanctions were awarded even though the Court concluded that Innis Arden had not intended to destroy evidence or to disadvantage Pitney Bowes.  In the Bow Tie Law Blog, the author opines that Innis Arden’s "toxic mess" was created in part by deposition testimony that made it clear to the Court that plaintiff had taken no steps to prevent the destruction of electronic and tangible evidence as early as 2005, by which time it was clear that plaintiff recognized the importance of that evidence in its future litigation. 

By the time  the spoliation sanctions issue came before Judge Atherton on a motion for reconsideration, Innis Arden was in even deeper trouble.  The Magistrate Judge had also awarded sanctions against Innis Arden for discovery abuses–the most egregious that the Magistrate Judge had seen during over twenty years on the federal bench.  Worse, Judge Atherton concluded after hearing Daubert motions that Innis Arden’s trial experts were not sufficiently reliable to be permitted to testify at trial.  On the basis of that ruling, she granted summary judgment to the defendants and dismissed the plaintiff’s complaint.  At the end of the day, the Court did not have to reconsider the Magistrate Judge’s spoliation ruling because the issue was now moot!  Still the "innocent landowner", Innis Arden’s complaint has been dismissed and may yet have to pay the defendants’ sanctions for discovery abuses.