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Manufacturer Denied New Trial After Jury Finds Refrigerator Posed Fire Hazard – Russell v. Whirlpool Corp.

By December 26, 2012July 17th, 2019Product Liability

As a Missouri products liability attorney, I was interested to see a decision upholding a verdict in favor of a Missouri couple who lost their home in a fire allegedly caused by a defective refrigerator. In Russell v. Whirlpool Corp., a jury found for Randy and Antoinette Russell on their claim that Whirlpool’s refrigerator was defectively designed and manufactured, awarding $1.37 million. Whirlpool appealed the verdict, arguing that their expert witness provided unreliable testimony; that Missouri law does not permit plaintiffs to infer product defects from circumstantial evidence; and that they should not have been permitted to introduce evidence of other Whirlpool-related fires. Finding no errors in the record, the Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed.
The Russells were not home when the fire started, perhaps fortunately for them. When they returned, they discovered that everything flammable in their home had been consumed and the fire had self-extinguished. They hired a certified fire investigator to determine the cause, and he concluded that the fire started in the refrigerator. They also hired an engineer, who investigated the inside of the refrigerator and concluded that the fire started because of an electrical malfunction in the compressor. The Russells then sued Whirlpool, not alleging a specific defect but inferring a defect from this evidence. Whirlpool moved to strike the fire investigator and engineer as experts, arguing that they were underqualified; this was denied. The trial court did, however, limit the Russells’ ability to offer evidence of other Whirlpool-related fires. This later became the basis for an objection when an expert mentioned other fires offhand. The jury eventually awarded the Russells $1.37 million.
On appeal to the Eighth Circuit, Whirlpool renewed its objections to the experts; argued that Missouri law does not permit plaintiffs to infer errors from circumstantial evidence; and claimed the district court should not have permitted the Russells to introduce evidence of other Whirlpool refrigerator fires. The objections to the fire investigator centered around his apparent deviation from National Fire Protection Association rule 921, an industry standard guideline. Eighth Circuit caselaw holds that NFPA 921 is a reliable method of investigation, but not THE only reliable method, the court said. Nor was the expert’s investigation as unreliable as claimed, it added. On the inferred-defect claim, the Eighth found that Missouri law does permit juries to infer a defect using circumstantial evidence, and that the jury had strong enough evidence to do so. And finally, the court found no prejudice in the district court’s failure to grant a mistrial after the expert casually mentioned other compressor fires in Whirlpool refrigerators.
As a St. Louis defective products lawyer, I’m pleased to see that the Russells were able to keep their favorable verdict. Large companies like Whirlpool very frequently appeal losses in trial court, but in many cases, the appeals are not so much because the verdict was clearly wrong as because they have the money to appeal. Most product liability cases involve defects that were confirmed; though it’s unusual to infer a defect, that may be the only thing a jury can do in a case like this, where the fire itself consumed the evidence of how it started. As a southern Illinois product defect attorney, I am sure that the jury award is badly needed money allowing the Russells to rebuild their personal and financial lives.

If your family suffered an injury or a loss because of a serious flaw in a consumer product, you may be able to seek justice and financial compensation from the negligent manufacturer. For a free, confidential consultation, call Carey, Danis & Lowe today at 1-877-678-3400 or send us a message online.
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