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Brown v. United States Stove Co.

Decided: December 21, 1984.

FRED BROWN, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
v.
UNITED STATES STOVE COMPANY, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT



On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division.

For reversal -- Chief Justice Wilentz and Justice Clifford, Schreiber, Handler, Pollock, O'Hern and Garibaldi. For affirmance -- None. The opinion of the Court was delivered by Handler, J. Schreiber, J., concurring. Justice Clifford and Justice Garibaldi join in this opinion. Clifford, Schreiber and Garibaldi, JJ., concurring in the result.

Handler

This is a strict products liability case that raises the issue of whether a manufacturer can be held liable for a design defect of its product when, after leaving the control of the manufacturer, that product was rendered more dangerous by its substantial alteration or misuse by a subsequent purchaser. The principles of law that generally govern the resolution of this question were considered in Soler v. Castmaster, Division of H.P.M. Corp., 97 N.J. 137 (1984), decided today. This appeal calls for further consideration of whether the product as originally designed was defective in failing to prevent or avoid a subsequent substantial alteration or misuse that was foreseeable, and whether such a design defect constitutes a proximate cause of the accident, taking into account the subsequent alteration or misuse.

Plaintiff, Fred Brown, sued defendant, United States Stove Company, for accidental injuries consisting of extensive burns suffered from a fire caused by the use of a heater, designed and manufactured by defendant. Plaintiff asserted causes of action in strict liability and negligence. Other defendants named originally are no longer in the case. The case was tried before a jury. After hearing all the evidence, the trial court dismissed plaintiff's claim as a matter of law, pursuant to Rule 4:40-1. The court ruled that defendant should not be held to any legal duty with respect to strict liability principles, emphasizing particularly that after the heater left defendant's control there was "an absolute and total transformation of a good, safe product into a completely unsafe product," the subsequent alteration of which was not reasonably foreseeable. The Appellate Division reversed the trial court and remanded the matter, ruling that there were unresolved factual disputes and, therefore,

jury questions relating to the reasonable foreseeability of the alteration of the product. We granted certification, 93 N.J. 256 (1983).

I

Plaintiff suffered burn injuries while he was standing near a free-standing, unvented space heater being used to heat a garage at a salvage yard. The heater had been manufactured by defendant. As originally designed, the heater was equipped with a pilot light tube, thermocouple valve, and gas safety shut-off valve. These devices monitored the pressure of gas in the heater; if the pressure was too high, the devices would automatically stop the inflow of gas and shut off the heater. The heater had been substantially altered by plaintiff's employer approximately fifteen years before the accident occurred. The pilot light tube, thermocouple valve and gas safety shut-off valve had been removed, so that at the time of the accident, the flow of gas in the heater was unregulated and was set at a pressure approximately 100 times greater than that for which the heater was designed. The accident occurred when excess propane gas ignited, resulting in a sudden flare-up that set plaintiff's clothes afire.

The trial court ruled that defendant should not be liable under the strict products liability doctrine. The court determined that the alterations to the heater were not reasonably foreseeable. The court reasoned that in considering the foreseeability of an intervening act, "one must ask * * * whether it was highly extraordinary or extraordinarily negligent * * *." The trial court then determined that removal of all the safety devices "was at very least extraordinarily negligent," and thus not foreseeable by defendant. The Appellate Division disagreed, holding that issues decided by the court should have been submitted to the jury.

The critical evidence in the case related to the design of the heater and the foreseeability of its alteration or misuse. Mr.

Bigelow, an expert witness for plaintiff, testified that "it [was] reasonably probable to assume that a percentage of stoves [ i.e., heaters] of that type manufactured at any time will be substantially altered." He also testified that it was reasonable to assume that heaters of that type manufactured in that time frame would be misused and abused since they were often used as temporary heaters on construction sites.*fn1 He stated that they "received the worst care -- treatment of appliances that [he had] ever seen," and that "it was common knowledge within the gas industry that appliances of this type were badly misused and abused in that * * * type of service." He testified that a manufacturer could have reasonably anticipated that by one means or another the safety devices would be defeated and an appliance operated at a higher pressure than that intended by its design.

The expert further stated that although the heater was a completely safe product if operated as designed, it was defective in that its design rendered it susceptible to the reasonably foreseeable alterations that were made. He pointed out that the safety mechanism was connected to the heater with a commercially available right-handed threading that could easily be disengaged by a person without expertise in pipe fitting. In his view, possible alternative devices consisted of noncommercial left-handed threading and inverted flange connectors, which were available during the 1950's and 1960's and would have made alteration of the heater much more difficult, without impairing the usefulness of the heater. Bigelow also stated that other safeties had different outlet threading from that used with this heater, although he had not seen other types of connectors on the particular kind of safety device used in this type of heater. Most of his testimony focused on the left-handed

threading, which, he stated, would have been only slightly more costly ("a few pennies") than the right-handed threading.*fn2

In contrast, Mr. Fox, an employee of defendant, testified that he had reviewed defendant's files that related to the safety of the unvented space heaters, examining complaints and reports dating as far back as the 1950's. He concluded that none of the files contained any information relating to modifications such as the ones performed on the heater involved in this case. Fox also stated that the heater was not designed or manufactured to be used on construction sites and that a different category of heaters was designed for that purpose. This particular model was intended to be used for heating one or two rooms in a house.

Fox's testimony for defendant also addressed the use of the heater and the effect of different safety devices in connection with its use. He testified that the right-handed threading was used for two reasons, serviceability and market convenience. Defendant used the right-handed or common threading because it was a standard component that could be serviced or replaced economically and efficiently. According to Fox, repairers would not stock noncommercially threaded devices, and, without standard components, consumers would lose the benefit of having a relatively inexpensive, serviceable product.

Fox also explained that defendant bought the safety devices from a large manufacturer and was "basically confined to utilizing the safety valve equipment that [was] on the commercial market." With respect to plaintiff's suggested alternative, Fox testified that left-handed threading safety devices were not

available, that an inverted flange fitting was normally used with copper tubing, not solid pipe as was used in this product, and that it "would not be practical on the outlet connection of this heater." To his knowledge, no equivalent manufacturer used an inverted flange. With regard to the cost of left-handed threading, Fox did not accept plaintiff's assertion that it was available and hence could not comment on its manufacturing costs. However, he emphasized that the cost of replacement to consumers would be very high because the non-standard components would have to be ordered from the factory, increasing the expense and delay of repair.

II

As we observed in Soler, supra, a manufacturer has a duty to make sure that its manufactured products placed into the stream of commerce are suitably safe when properly used for their intended or reasonably foreseeable purposes. 98 N.J. at 144-145; Suter v. San Angelo Foundry & Mach. Co., 81 N.J. 150, 169 (1979). See Green v. Sterling Extruder Corp., 95 N.J. 263, 264 (1984). If a product is not suitably safe when so used because of a defect inherent in its design, the manufacturer will be strictly liable in tort for ensuing injuries to foreseeable users. Cepeda v. Cumberland Eng'g. Co., Inc., 76 N.J. 152, 177 (1978).

The primary standard for determining whether a manufactured product has been designed defectively involves the risk-utility formula. Soler, supra, 98 N.J. at 145; O'Brien v. Muskin, 94 N.J. 169, 181 (1983). If its risks outweigh its utility, the product is defective. O'Brien, supra, 94 N.J. at 186. The initial inquiry in this appeal therefore must focus upon the evidence relating to whether the heater as originally designed was defective under the risk-utility standard. Suter, supra, 81 N.J. at 171-72.

While strict products liability attaches when the product, shown to be defective, has been used for its intended purposes

as originally designed, Restatement (Second) of Torts § 402A, we further recognized in Soler, supra, that a manufacturer can also be held liable under strict liability principles for design defects if it is objectively foreseeable that a substantial change in the product will cause injury. 98 N.J. at 151-152. This ruling was clearly foreshadowed in several recent decisions. E.g., Michalko v. Cooke Color & Chem. Corp., 91 N.J. 386 (1982); Suter, supra, 81 N.J. at 168-69; Cepeda, supra, 76 N.J. at 152. It has also been recognized elsewhere. E.g., Whitehead v. St. Joe Lead Co., Inc., 729 F.2d 238, 250 (3d Cir.1984); Saupitty v. Yazoo Mfg. Co., Inc., 726 F.2d 657, 659 (10th Cir.1984); Merriweather v. E.W. Bliss Co., 636 F.2d 42, 45, 46 (3d Cir.1980); Thompson v. Package Mach. Co., 22 Cal.App. 3d 188, 196, 99 Cal.Rptr. 281, 286 (Cal.Ct.App.1972); Duke v. Gulf & Western Mfg. Co., 660 S.W. 2d 404, 414 (Mo.Ct.App.1983); Sharp v. Chrysler Corp., 432 S.W. 2d 131, 136 (Tex.Civ.App.1968).

The critical factor in determining whether a subsequent substantial alteration of a product or its misuse can be attributed to a manufacturer as a proximate result of an original design defect under the risk-utility standard is "foreseeability." Soler, supra, 98 N.J. at 151-152. This was highlighted in Cepeda.

[W]hile foreseeability by the defendant of the harmful character (dangerous proclivity) of the product is not a requisite to liability, foreseeability (objective) of the kind of use (or misuse) of the product which occurred is a relevant factor. [76 N.J. at 175 (citations omitted).]

We further stressed in Cepeda, "that in applying strict liability in tort for design defects, manufacturers cannot escape liability on grounds of misuse or abnormal use if the actual use proximate to the injury was objectively foreseeable." 76 N.J. at 177 (citations omitted; emphasis added). See Suter, supra, 81 N.J. at 159 ("an unforeseeable misuse of a product may not give rise to strict liability"). "Foreseeability" in the context of determining a design defect under the risk-utility standard has been defined as "'reasonable foreseeability,' (i.e., objective, it need not be actual. Noel, ["Defective Products: Abnormal Use, Contributory Negligence and Assumption of Risk,"] 25 Vand.L.Rev. [93,] 100

[(1972)].)," Cepeda, supra, 76 N.J. at 178. The dangers inherent in the product arising out of its subsequent misuse or substantial alteration are not objectively foreseeable by a manufacturer when a product is misused or substantially changed in a manner that could not have been reasonably anticipated by a manufacturer at the time the product was designed and manufactured. See Daniell v. Ford Motor Co., Inc., 581 F. Supp. 728, 730 (D.N.M.1984); Walkowiak, "Uniform Products Liability Act," 1 S.M.U. Products Liability Inst., § 8.02 at 8-7 (1980).

We note contrary authority that absolves a manufacturer from liability for accidental injuries attributed to a substantial alteration if the alteration involves a safety feature of the product without regard to the foreseeability of the alteration. E.g., Robinson v. Reed-Prentice Division of Package Machine Co., 49 N.Y. 2d 471, 426 N.Y.S. 2d 717, 403 N.E. 2d 440 (1980). This decisional law, however, fails to appreciate that it is only the safety aspect of a product that is implicated in the notion of a manufacturer's responsibility for subsequent alterations. While a subsequent change in a product may be material or significant, such a change is not "substantial" for strict liability purposes unless it is related to or affects the safety of the product and its potential for danger. Soler, supra, 98 N.J. at 148. Consequently a design defect inherent in a safety feature of a product that foreseeably leads to a substantial alteration and an increased risk of danger can be a basis for strict products liability. See Robinson, supra, 49 N.Y. 2d at 482, 426 N.Y.S. 2d at 722, 403 N.E. 2d at 446 (Fuchsburg, J., dissenting).

Moreover, virtually all of these contrary decisions disregard or deemphasize the element of "foreseeability," which may extend a manufacturer's liability for subsequent substantial alterations. The approach of these cases is flatly inconsistent with our express holding in Soler, as well as the principles clearly approved in Michalko, Suter and Cepeda. Moreover, these cases run counter to the identical principles applicable

generally in the tort field, which in particular situations posit responsibility for the negligent failure reasonably to foresee the intentional, wilful or even criminal acts of third persons that proximately cause injuries. See, e.g., Butler v. Acme Markets, 89 N.J. 270 (1982); Hill v. Yaskin, 75 N.J. 139 (1977); Trentacost v. Brussel, 82 N.J. 214 (1980); Braitman v. Overlook Terrace, 68 N.J. 368 (1975).

Further, the principle of "objective foreseeability" comports with a basic theme of strict products liability, namely, that the condition of the product, rather than the conduct of the manufacturer is determinative of ultimate responsibility for product failure causing accidental injuries. Suter, 81 N.J. at 181 (Clifford, J., dissenting.) For that reason, "objective foreseeability" does not affix responsibility for future events that are only theoretically, remotely, or just possibly foreseeable, or even simply subjectively foreseen by a particular manufacturer. Rather, the doctrine applies to those future occurrences that, in light of the general experience within the industry when the product was manufactured, objectively and reasonably could have been anticipated. Supra at 167.

We see no merit in the additional, particularized argument that in this case the heater was not simply substantially altered by the plaintiff's employer, but also it was abused or misused by its owner, plaintiff's employer, in that it was used to generate heat well beyond its original designed capacity. With respect to whether there is an original design defect, the misuse or improper use of the product, if objectively foreseeable, does not pose a legal issue that is materially different from that involving the foreseeable subsequent alteration of the product absent any misuse. We pointed this out in Soler:

Foreseeable misuse or abnormal use can be extended by analogy to foreseeable substantial change of the product from its original design. * * * [I]n the event of either a substantial alteration or misuse, the manufacturer will be responsible for resultant injuries to an operator if the alteration or misuse ...


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