Virginia Quist escaped her burning Richfield, Minnesota home alive (but with third-degree burns); her husband did not survive the fire. Virginia had been using a Sunbeam heating pad, put it aside, fell asleep, and woke up to flames and smoke. The Quist family has sued Sunbeam.
Sunbeam raised several defenses to escape the case on summary judgment: For example, was plaintiff obligated to provide an expert opinion to support a failure to warn claim? U.S. District Court Judge Donovan Frank (D. Minn.) concluded, “No.” Sunbeam tried to get two of plaintiffs’ liability experts excluded for perceived weaknesses in their expert testimony. Frank: “No.” Sunbeam tried to argue that the Quists could not sue for property damage when they made a $242,000 insurance coverage claim for which they got $243,000 paid on that claim (how did they do that?). Frank: “Yes, they can” (due to an agreement between plaintiffs and their insurer that Sunbeam argued was improperly withheld from discovery). But Sunbeam did not emerge completely empty-handed…
Sunbeam argued that no post-sale duty to warn should apply (that is, a duty to follow-up with buyers when the manufacturer knows or has reason to know of a risk post-sale) and Judge Frank, invoking a 1999 decision of U.S. District Court Judge John Tunheim (D. Minn.) (which itself cited cases on the point) agreed with Sunbeam.
In sum, all told, Sunbeam’s motion had nearly nothing for a pay-off. On the other hand, given the risk at trial and the odds on its motion, it was probably a gamble well worth taking.