United States District Court, D. Massachusetts
ARBELLA MUTUAL INSURANCE CO., as subrogee of Kathleen Chapin and Timothy Chapin Plaintiff,
FIELD CONTROLS, L.L.C., and PACIFIC ELECTRONICS CORP. Defendants.
ORDER ON MOTIONS FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT (DOC. NOS. 90,
91) AND MOTION IN LIMINE (DOC. NO. 92)
SOROKIN UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
a products liability dispute arising out of a failure in the
heating system of Kathleen and Timothy Chapin's home
which was insured by Plaintiff Arbella Mutual Insurance
Company (“Arbella”). Arbella brought suit against
Defendants Field Controls, L.L.C (“Field
Controls”) and Pacific Electronics Corporation
(“Pacific Electronics”) for the cost of repairing
the damage. Arbella's complaint alleged a single count of
negligence against each of the two defendants. Doc. No. 1-1.
The defendants each asserted crossclaims against the other
for contribution and indemnification. Doc. Nos. 8, 21. At the
conclusion of discovery, Field Controls and Pacific
Electronics moved for summary judgment. Doc. Nos. 90, 91.
Additionally, Field Controls moved to exclude the opinions
and testimony of Arbella's expert. Doc. No. 92. For the
reasons set forth below, the motions for summary judgment are
DENIED IN PART AND ALLOWED IN PART, as described herein. The
motion in limine is DENIED.
February 2015, the heating system at the Chapins' home in
Chatham, Massachusetts shut off and stopped operating,
causing the pipes to freeze. Doc. No. 115 at 1-2. The frozen
pipes, in turn, caused water damage to the home. Id.
at 2. The Chapins submitted a claim to their insurance
company, Arbella, which paid approximately $200, 000 to
repair the home. Id. Arbella alleges that the
heating system failed because of a faulty vent damper which
was manufactured by Field Controls and Pacific Electronics.
vent damper is installed on boiler vent ductwork to limit the
amount of residual heated air that can exit a dwelling
through the boiler vent, and also prevent cold air from
entering the dwelling.” Id. at 4. Essentially,
when the thermostat in the home calls for heat, “the
damper's motor assembly is energized, and it rotates the
damper from the ‘closed' position to the
‘open' position, ” which “allows
products of combustion (such as carbon monoxide) to exit the
dwelling during boiler operation.” Id. at 4-5.
When the thermostat no longer calls for heat, the
damper's motor assembly is again energized and it rotates
the damper to the “closed” position, preventing
outside air from coming into the home through the vent
ductwork. Id. at 5. When a vent damper fails to
operate properly, it is designed to remain in a
“closed” position, which “prevents the
boiler from calling for heat, which prevents potentially
toxic gases (carbon monoxide) from building up in the
vent damper in the Chapins' home was manufactured by
Field Controls. Id. at 8. The motor assembly inside
the vent damper was manufactured by Pacific Electronics.
Id. at 6. On multiple occasions, Arbella's
experts, John Certuse and Victor DaCosta, tested the vent
damper from the Chapins' home. See Doc. No.
104-6 at 3. Certuse offers an expert report in which he
concludes that “the Pacific Electronics J206 motor to
the Field Controls GVD 5 vent damper failed because of an
internal manufacturing defect . . . and that this defect
existed prior to the time it left Pacific Electronics'
factory and Field Controls' assembly plant.”
Id. at 19. Field Controls moved to exclude
Certuse's and DaCosta's opinions and testimony. Doc.
No. 92. Arbella opposed. Doc. No. 106.
Field Controls and Pacific Electronics also moved for summary
judgment against Arbella. Doc. Nos. 90, 91. Arbella opposed.
Doc. Nos. 101, 103. Additionally, Field Controls moved for
summary judgment against Pacific Electronics. Doc. No. 91.
Field Controls argues that “[e]ven if Plaintiff could
establish a manufacturing defect existed in the J-206 motor,
Pacific Electronics, as the motor manufacturer, owes Field
Controls common law indemnity” because Field Controls
is without fault. Doc. No. 95 at 9-10. Pacific Electronics
opposed. Doc. No. 99.
Court heard argument on each of the pending motions on March
Summary judgment is appropriate when “the movant shows
that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and
the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.”
Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). A genuine dispute “is one on which
the evidence would enable a reasonable jury to find the fact
in favor of either party.” Perez v. Lorraine
Enters., Inc., 769 F.3d 23, 29 (1st Cir. 2014). “A
‘material' fact is one that is relevant in the
sense that it has the capacity to change the outcome of the
jury's determination.” Id. (citation
omitted). The Court is “obliged to view the record in
the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, and to draw
all reasonable inferences in the nonmoving party's
favor.” LeBlanc v. Great Am. Ins. Co., 6 F.3d
836, 841 (1st Cir. 1993). However, the Court must ignore
“conclusory allegations, improbable inferences, and
unsupported speculation.” Sullivan v. City of
Springfield, 561 F.3d 7, 14 (1st Cir. 2009).
hearing and in its opposition to the motion for summary
judgment, Arbella advanced five theories premised on three
different causes of action upon which it believes it can
recover: (1) negligent manufacturing defect, (2) breach of
the implied warranty of merchantability because of a
manufacturing defect, (3) negligent failure to warn, (4)
breach of the implied warranty of merchantability because of
a failure to warn, and (5) chapter 93A. As to the last four
theories, the defendants contest Arbella's right to
advance them at this stage of the litigation on grounds of
fair notice. As to all five theories, the defendants contest
the merits and argue that Arbella cannot survive summary
judgment on any of the five theories. The Court considers
each theory in turn.
Negligent Manufacturing Claim
complaint asserts a single count of negligence against each
defendant. Doc. No. 1-1. At the hearing, the defendants
conceded that they had fair notice that Arbella was pursuing
a negligence claim premised on a theory that the motor inside
the vent damper had a manufacturing defect attributable to
one or both defendants' negligence. Accordingly, the
Court considers the merits of the negligent manufacturing
defect theory, beginning with the elements of this claim
under Massachusetts state law.
basic elements of a products liability action founded on
negligence are duty, breach of duty, cause in fact, and
proximate cause.” Colter v. Barber-Greene Co.,
525 N.E.2d 1305, 1313 (Mass. 1988). Liability is imposed
“when a product's manufacturer or seller has failed
to use reasonable care to eliminate foreseeable dangers which
subject a user to an unreasonable risk of injury.”
Id. “A defect from manufacturing, as opposed
to design, occurs when a product differs from identical
products issued from the same manufacturer.”
Wasylow v. Glock, Inc., 975 F.Supp. 370, 377 (D.
Mass. 1996). “In an action based on negligence, the
plaintiffs have the burden of proving that a defect
attributable to the manufacturer's negligence caused the
injury.” Corsetti v. Stone Co., 483 N.E.2d
793, 805 (Mass. 1985) (quotation marks and citations
omitted). “Where, as here, the accident occurs after
the defendant has surrendered control of the instrumentality
involved, it is incumbent upon the plaintiff to show that the
instrumentality had not been improperly handled by himself or
by intermediate handlers.” Id. at 805-06.
case, whether Arbella has set forth sufficient facts to
survive summary judgment on the negligent manufacturing claim
depends initially on whether the Court allows Field
Controls' motion to exclude the opinions and testimony of
Arbella's experts. Thus, the Court first resolves the
motion in limine, Doc. No. 92.
September 7, 2018, Arbella's expert, in the presence of
representatives of defendants, conducted a
“destructive” examination of the failed vent
damper. Doc. No. 115 ¶ 19; Doc. No. 104-6 at 3. Based
upon his review of the discovery (including the deposition of
one of Field Control's engineers) and his examination of
the vent damper and motor from the Chapins' home (both
exterior and interior after disassembling the motor), he
opined that the motor “had not been opened or
manipulated since it left Pacific Electronics Chinese
manufacturing facility.” Doc. No. 104-6 at 19.
purposes of making a comparison, Arbella's expert
obtained a Pacific Electronics motor of the same make and
model as the Chapins' motor (Pacific Electronics, J206).
Id. at 4. For ease of reference, this is called the
“comparison motor.” The comparison motor was made
in 2006 and was estimated to have been in service until 2018,
for a total of 4233 days. The Chapins' motor, made in
2004, was estimated to have been in service for 3881 days
before it failed. Id. Based on an internal and
external examination of the comparison motor, Arbella's
expert concluded it was operating properly, and he provided
experts from both Pacific Electronics and Field Controls
access to both motors during the September 2018 destructive
testing. Id. The record reveals nothing further
regarding the conditions under which the comparison motor
operated, such as operating environment or frequency of use.
Arbella's expert reviewed no design specifications for
the J206 motor and the record reveals no such specifications.
However, he compared the characteristics of the comparison
motor to the Chapins' motor and identified a number of
differences which he concludes contributed to the motor's
failure. Id. at 18-19. Additionally, when the expert
placed the comparison motor into the Chapins' vent
damper, the vent damper functioned. From the foregoing,
Arbella's expert opined that the comparison motor was an
exemplar of a J206 motor.
Controls asserts that this method is not scientifically
reliable because Arbella's experts did not have the
design specifications with which to compare the motor from
the Chapins' home. Doc. No. 97 at 8. Thus, Field Controls
argues, without these design specifications, it is impossible
to know whether the comparison motor was a true exemplar
(meaning that it followed the design specifications).
Id. Additionally, Field Controls argues that the
lack of evidence in Arbella's expert report about the
conditions under which the comparison motor ran before being
used as a comparison negate the conclusion that it was a true
exemplar against which to evaluate the motor from the
arguments go to weight, not admissibility. Arbella has
offered sufficient facts, which the Court accepts as true for
purposes of summary judgment, upon which a reasonable jury
could conclude that the comparison motor used was in fact a
true exemplar and was therefore a proper basis against which
to evaluate the motor from the Chapins'
home. The strength and credibility of the use of
the comparison motor as an exemplar is a question for trial.
upon his examination of the Chapins' motor and the
comparison motor, Arbella's expert ...