Woodland Hills personal injury attorney Barry P. Goldberg has seen almost every type and kind of injury and insurance claim. This one might top the charts! The California Court of Appeal has attempted to answer the following “burning” question: “Who is responsible for a house fire that occurs when a dog is left alone with combustible dog food on a stove top: the dog’s owners or the stove top manufacturer?”
Yes—- you guessed it! An inquisitive Labradoodle dog set a rented house on fire in Santa Barbara while seemingly trying to cook (or, really Grab) a bag of dog food that was left near a stove top. While the dog owner was away only for a matter of minutes, the dog must have turned on a burner knob to an ignition position when it tried to get the dog food. This caused the dog food to ignite. Fire then spread throughout the house. (See, Richardson v. Whirlpool Corporation, unpublished 2nd Dist., Div. 6, May 30, 2017.)
Luckily, there were no injuries and the dog was just fine. (By the way, if this was a personal injury case, I have no doubt that the Court of Appeal would have thrown out the case!) Instead, The homeowner’s insurer paid for the fire loss and turned around and sued Whirlpool—the maker of the stove! They claim Whirlpool is responsible for the fire.
Whirlpool defended and argued that the renters did not use the stove top in a reasonably foreseeable way when they placed combustible materials on it; that it properly designed and manufactured the stove top; and that it provided adequate warnings that appellants did not read. As an affirmative defense, Whirlpool argues that appellants’ placement of combustibles on the stove top was an unforeseeable misuse that constitutes a superseding cause of the fire.
Whirlpool brought a motion for summary judgment. Whirlpool’s safety manager declared that the stove top had no design defect because it requires users to both push and turn the control knob to ignite a burner, exactly as a consumer who read the safety guide would expect. The amount of force needed to complete these tasks “balances the desire to prevent accidental ignition but still allow[s] older consumers or arthritic consumers to activate the surface burners.” The safety manager declared that the stove top had no manufacturing defect because burners were designed to ignite when the knobs are turned between 55 and 95 degrees. Finally, he said the stove top had the requisite instructions and safety warnings on it and in the safety guide, including a warning against storing combustible materials on or near the stove top. No mention was made of anticipating that a dog might turn on a burner!
The trial court granted Whirlpool’s motion for summary judgment. It ruled that appellants’ actions were a superseding cause of the fire: “[A]ssuming the stove was the source of the fire, it simply was not reasonable for Whirlpool to anticipate that [the Renters] would store dried dog food and other combustible materials on top of their stove and then leave their dog, who is hyperactive, alone and unattended in the house and that the dog would then jump up against the stove and accidently [sic] turn one of the burners on while trying to get at the bag of food. Because such actions are ‘highly unusual or extraordinary,’ they are superseding and intervening and break the chain of causation, entitling Whirlpool to judgment as a matter of law.”
Believe it or not— in its wisdom — Div. 6 of the Court of Appeal REVERSED the trial court! Although the explanation is fairly technical, basically, the Court held that “it is a question of fact” whether the Stove manufacturer negated possible liability on the theories of Design Defect, Manufacturing Defect, Failure to Warn, and the affirmative defense that unforeseeable misuse of the stove top was the superseding cause of the fire.
In a strict product liability action, a defendant is not liable for harm caused by its product if the plaintiff misused the product after it left the defendant’s possession, and the misuse was “so highly extraordinary that it was not reasonably foreseeable” to the defendant and should thus be considered the sole or superseding cause of the plaintiff’s injuries. (CACI No. 1245; see Perez v. VAS S.p.A. (2010) 188 Cal.App.4th 658, 685.) At the summary judgment stage, it is the defendant’s burden to prove that the plaintiff’s own misuse caused his or her injuries. The foreseeability of a product’s misuse presents an issue of fact. (Id.) It may be decided as a matter of law only when the undisputed facts “‘leave no room for a reasonable difference of opinion.’ [Citation.]” (Chavez v. Glock, Inc. (2012) 207 Cal.App.4th 1283, 1308.)
Therefore, the court held that Whirlpool failed to carry its burden of proving that the misuse was unforeseeable as a matter of law. Whirlpool presented no evidence that leaving a dog alone at home is not reasonably foreseeable. And the only evidence on whether leaving combustibles on a stove top is so highly extraordinary as to not be reasonably foreseeable is Whirlpool’s inclusion of a warning against the practice in the stove top’s safety guide. Inclusion of such a warning suggests that leaving combustibles on a stove is foreseeable and should be guarded against.
The most valuable lesson to be learned from this case—- perhaps, a very experienced trial attorney can find liability where seemingly it does not appear to exist. Also, do not let your dog cook when you are not at home!