Tragically, the tank they had in mind was one left behind from a tenant of the Donahues, a tenant who had committed suicide and was reputed to have been running a meth lab on the rented premises. The propane tank appears to have had acetylene in it, not propane, so when Lyzhoft took the tank to be filled at Waconia Farm Supply (WFS), the tank exploded, killing a WFS employee, Ryan Samuelson, and badly injuring Lyzhoft’s son (and by virtue of his proximity, injuring Lyzhoft himself, though he was not physically injured (that is, post-traumatic stress)).
So the question on appeals was whether the Donahues may be strictly liable under a theory of products liability and/or, alternatively, whether they may be held liable in negligence for Lyzhoft’s injury.
Carver County District Court Judge Richard C. Perkins awarded the Donahues summary judgment on both counts. The Minnesota Court of Appeals affirmed judgment for the defendants on the products liability claim but reversed as to negligence.
The Court of Appeals decision is a well-reasoned decision. As to the strict liability claim, the Court of Appeals found that the Donahues were “commercial bailors” of the propane tank and further recognized that, as such, in many jurisdictions, they could, in theory, be subject to strict liability under products liability law. The Court held, however, that this should be up to the Minnesota Supreme Court or the legislature rather than the intermediate court of appeals. Furthermore, though, even if Minnesota products liability law were applied to commercial bailors, it would not extend to the Donahues whose bailment of the propane gas container was a one-time thing. They were clearly not “in the business” of distributing propane tanks.
As for the negligence claim, however, the gist of the Court of Appeals’ decision is that someone in the situation of the Donahues, vis-à-vis Lyzhoft and vis-à-vis the propane tank — that is, the deliverers of a gas tank retrieved from a meth lab — owe a duty of care to the recipient.
The court found there were genuine issues of material fact on the Donahues’ knowledge of the meth lab, of past explosions at the meth lab, and other matters which a jury could find would trigger a duties to inspect and to warn.
It seems paradoxical that, ultimately, the Donahues may face liability under a negligence theory, which many associate with “blameworthiness” or “culpability” but not liable on a theory of strict products liability. But Minnesota litigators, if not the general public, have long known that the ideas of negligence law and moral judgment sharply diverged over 100 years ago. Imposing liability on the Donahues in this case, if that is the ultimate outcome, will not be about “blaming” them for the accident. It would be about establishing a rule that, ideally, will prevent such tragedies in the future.