Law School Case Brief
Phillips v. Cricket Lighters - 584 Pa. 179, 883 A.2d 439 (2005)
Punitive damages are an extreme remedy, available in only the most exceptional matters. Punitive damages may be appropriately awarded only when the plaintiff has established that the defendant has acted in an outrageous fashion due to either the defendant's evil motive or his reckless indifference to the rights of others. A defendant acts recklessly when his conduct creates an unreasonable risk of physical harm to another and such risk is substantially greater than that which is necessary to make his conduct negligent. Thus, a showing of mere negligence, or even gross negligence, will not suffice to establish that punitive damages should be imposed. Rather, the plaintiff must adduce evidence which goes beyond a showing of negligence, evidence sufficient to establish that the defendant's acts amounted to intentional, willful, wanton, or reckless conduct.
Three people died, two of them young children, in a fire that resulted when the children played with Robyn Williams’ lighter. It is uncontested that this butane lighter lacked any child-resistant feature. Jerome, Robyn’s son, was able to use the lighter to ignite some linens. The fire that resulted killed Jerome, Robyn, and another minor child of Robyn's; one minor child, Neil Williams (Neil), survived.
Gwendolyn Phillips, as administratrix of the estates of the three decedents and as guardian of Neil, instituted this action against the manufacturers and distributors of the Cricket lighter (Cricket). In her complaint, Phillips, inter alia, claims of design defect sounding in both strict liability and negligence, negligent infliction of emotional distress, breach of the implied warranty of merchantability, and punitive damages. These claims were all predicated on Phillips’ allegations that Cricket should have manufactured and distributed a lighter that had childproof features.
Cricket filed for summary judgment. The trial court found in favor of Cricket, and dismissed all claims against them.
Did the evidence presented support an award of punitive damages?
The court held that Cricket could not be liable for breach of warranty of merchantability because the ordinary purposes for which the lighter was claimed to be fit did not include use as a children's plaything. Therefore, it made no difference whether the warranty extended to the child who was a guest in the home at the time. The evidence also would not support an award of punitive damages because the surviving complaint alleged ordinary negligence, not the sort of reckless or willful conduct that could result in punitive damages exposure.
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