Speller v. Sears, Roebuck & Co.

100 N.Y.2d 38, 760 N.Y.S.2d 79, 790 N.E.2d 252 (2003)



In a products liability claim, a plaintiff is not required to prove the specific defect and proof of necessary facts may be circumstantial. In order to proceed in the absence of evidence identifying a specific flaw, a plaintiff must prove that the product did not perform as intended and exclude all other causes for the product's failure that are not attributable to defendants.


Plaintiff decedent died in a house fire which originated in the kitchen. Plaintiffs decedent and her estate asserted that the fire was caused by defective wiring in the refrigerator. Plaintiffs filed an action alleging negligence, strict products liability, and breach of warranty against defendants, who were the manufacturer, retailer, and others. Defendants filed a motion for summary judgment. The state supreme court denied defendants' request for summary judgment. The appellate division of the supreme court reversed and granted the motion, dismissing the complaint as against the manufacturer and the retailer. Plaintiffs were granted leave to appeal. The federal appellate court reversed the appellate division’s order, with costs, and denied the motion of the manufacturer and the retailer for summary judgment.


Was defendant's summary judgment properly denied?




Summary judgment was not proper, as plaintiffs raised a triable question of fact by offering competent evidence, which, if credited by the jury, was sufficient to rebut defendants' alternative cause evidence. Plaintiffs' experts consistently asserted that the fire originated in the upper right quadrant of the refrigerator and each contended the stove was not the source of the blaze. Both parties supported their positions with detailed, non-conclusory expert depositions and other submissions that explained the bases for the opinions. Because a reasonable jury could credit that proof and find that plaintiffs excluded all other causes of the fire not attributable to defendants, the case presented material issues of fact requiring a trial.

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