Court upholds verdict for manufacturer based on trial judge's rulings restricting evidence the plaintiff's expert was allowed to present
Firehouse Properties, LLC and others sued Lasko Products, Inc., arguing that a Lasko Model 3733 fan was defective and caused a fire that damaged the palintiff's Bar and Grill. The fan had been used to ventilate the resort property while its floors were refinished. The contractors testified that the fire started, in their presence, near the motor of a particular Lasko Products fan. The fire marshall concluded that it spread by reason of the presence of flammable wood stain vapor.
The plaintiffs argued that a defect in the particular fan's thermal cut-off unit was a proximate cause of the fire, but Lasko argued this was mere speculation, and that the fire probably started with an unextinguished pilot light in the kitchen and "flashed back" to the fan. Both sides presented experts to support their causation theory. The plaintiff's electrical engineering expert sought to introduce testimony about more than 200 other fires involving Lasko fans with the same motor, in order to support his theory of causation. The judge allowed into evidence the expert's opinion about causation, but did not allow him to introduce evidence relating to the other 200 Lasko fires. The jury ultimately ruled against the plaintiffs, and they appealed, arguing that the judge erred in refusing the expert's offer of proof of similar fires.
The Court of Appeals rejected the appeal, holding that the engineer did not prove a "substantial similarity" between the 200 other fires and the one in litigation. It cited testimony from Lasko engineers to the effect that Lasko had recalled its fans in 2005 due to insulation break-downs in the motor windings, and that the instant fan thus lacked similarity with the other fires cited by the Plaintiff's expert. On that basis, it concluded that the trial judge's evidentiary ruling was "within the principled range of outcomes" and not error.