On Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.
Hunter, Garth, and Becker, Circuit Judges.
This appeal requires us to consider whether the district court's rulings, that restricted direct examination of plaintiffs' expert as to the probable cause of a malfunction in a refrigerator that allegedly caused a fire that destroyed plaintiffs' home, constituted harmful error. Because we find that the court's evidentiary rulings were erroneous and harmful within Fed. R. Evid. 103(a), we will reverse and remand for a new trial.
On April 10, 1979, plaintiffs Francis and Barbara Breidor purchased from defendant Sears, Roebuck and Company a refrigerator manufactured by defendant Whirlpool Corporation. From that date until July 24, 1980, the refrigerator was in continuous use, and plaintiffs experienced no problems with the unit. On the evening of July 24, 1980, plaintiffs' daughter used the refrigerator sometime between 10:00 and 10:15 p.m., and it was functioning normally. She then left the house. Shortly thereafter a fire broke out that destroyed much of the family's home and its contents. No member of the Breidor household was home when the fire was reported at around 11:00 p.m.
Alleging that the fire was caused by a defect in the refrigerator, plaintiffs brought suit in Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas against Sears and Whirlpool. The suit was predicated on strict liability under Restatement (Second) of Torts § 402A (1965). Defendants removed the case to the District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1441 (1976).*fn1 The case proceeded to a bifurcated trial. The liability portion of the trial focused on the origin and cause of the fire. Defendants contended and offered expert testimony to show that the fire began at a low point alongside the refrigerator, that the unit was not defective, and that there is not enough oxygen inside a refrigerator to sustain a fire. Plaintiffs contended that the fire originated inside the upper part of the refrigerator, and was caused by a defect in the refrigerator. Plaintiffs' expert witness, William Emory, testified that the fire originated in the upper part of the refrigerator but stated that he could not find a specific defect. Because of this concession, and despite repeated attempts by plaintiffs' counsel, Emory was not allowed to render an opinion as to the cause of the fire.
The jury returned a verdict in favor of Sears and Whirlpool, and this appeal followed. The plaintiffs contend that the district court abused its discretion in refusing to permit Emory to give his opinion as to the cause of the fire, and that the exclusion of this evidence affected plaintiffs' "substantial rights" within the meaning of Fed. R. Evid. 103(a).
Because this appeal turns on the admissibility of Emory's testimony, it is necessary to recount it in some detail. Emory, a professional engineer and fire investigator, was qualified as an expert on the origins and causes of fires. He first testified that the origin of the fire was in the "upper part of the refrigerator."*fn2 Next, he turned to the cause of the fire. Emory testified that, as a result of further investigation, he was able to eliminate several possible causes of the fire, including a smoldering cigarette or other object on the floor next to the refrigerator, an electrical breakdown in the wall outlets or the wires running to the refrigerator, or a malfunction in the refrigerator's compressor. Elimination of these possible causes reinforced Emory's initial conclusion that the fire originated in the upper part of the refrigerator.
Emory then discussed the probable cause of a fire that originates in the upper part of a refrigerator. He explained that he had gone to Sears to get information about the electrical components that were in the upper part of the refrigerator, but that he could not get this information. He also testified that he observed that the thermostat was located in the top of the refrigerator along with some other component. Using this information, he decided to try to cut into the refrigerator casing to see if he could find some problem with the thermostat, or some other source of ignition that could have caused the fire. Emory was then asked:
A. October 10th. The cut out portion in the back [of the refrigerator] was something I hacked out with a hack saw blade or whatever we had. We were not too successful. I could not find a specific defect. I gave it considerable thought and what I finally came up with is there had been a breakdown in the electrical . . .
MR. SHORT (defendant's counsel): I object.
The gentlemen said that he could not find a defect, and, therefore, I object to any ...