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Singleton v. Arkansas Housing Authorities Property

United States District Court, E.D. Arkansas, Western Division

March 31, 2018

FURLANDARE SINGLETON, et al. PLAINTIFFS
v.
ARKANSAS HOUSING AUTHORITIES PROPERTY & CASUALTY SELF-INSURED FUND, INC., et al. DEFENDANTS

          OPINION AND ORDER

          Kristine G. Baker United States District Judge

         Before the Court are a motion for summary judgment and supplemental motion for summary judgment filed by separate defendant BRK Brands, Inc. (“BRK”) (Dkt. Nos. 88; 179). Plaintiff Marilyn Beavers filed a response to BRK's motion for summary judgment and supplemental motion for summary judgment (Dkt. No. 191). Separate plaintiffs Furlandare Singleton and Clyde Hatchet filed a motion to adopt and incorporate by reference Ms. Beavers' response (Dkt. No. 194). BRK filed a reply to plaintiffs' response (Dkt. No. 197).

         The Court grants Mr. Singleton and Mr. Hatchet's motion to adopt (Dkt. No. 194). See Fed. R. Civ. P. 10(c) (“A statement in a pleading may be adopted by reference elsewhere in the same pleading or in any other pleading or motion.”).

         In the early morning hours of March 22, 2012, Ms. Beavers and her children, Haylee Singleton, Dequan Singleton, Emily Beavers, and Syndi Singleton, died after a fire in the kitchen of their apartment in Jacksonville. These events are unimaginably tragic. This Court has studied carefully and thoroughly the filings and record evidence in this case. For the following reasons, the Court grants BRK's motion for summary judgment and supplemental motion for summary judgment (Dkt. Nos. 88; 179). The Court dismisses with prejudice all claims against BRK.

         I. Hearing

         As a preliminary matter, the Court notes that Ms. Beavers requested a hearing on BRK's motion for summary judgment and supplemental motion (Dkt. No. 191, ¶ 5). Through informal communications between counsel and the Court, Ms. Beavers withdrew her request for a hearing. Therefore, the Court denies as moot Ms. Beavers' request for a hearing.

         II. Legal Standard

         Summary judgment is proper if the evidence, when viewed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, shows that there is no genuine issue of material fact and that the defendant is entitled to entry of judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56; Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). A factual dispute is genuine if the evidence could cause a reasonable jury to return a verdict for either party. Miner v. Local 373, 513 F.3d 854, 860 (8th Cir. 2008). “The mere existence of a factual dispute is insufficient alone to bar summary judgment; rather, the dispute must be outcome determinative under the prevailing law.” Holloway v. Pigman, 884 F.2d 365, 366 (8th Cir. 1989).

         Parties opposing a summary judgment motion may not rest merely upon the allegations in their pleadings. Buford v. Tremayne, 747 F.2d 445, 447 (8th Cir. 1984). The initial burden is on the moving party to demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Celotex Corp., 477 U.S. at 323. The burden then shifts to the nonmoving party to establish that there is a genuine issue to be determined at trial. Prudential Ins. Co. v. Hinkel, 121 F.3d 364, 366 (8th Cir. 1997).

         The nonmoving party “must respond by submitting evidentiary materials that set out specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial” and “must do more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts.” Gannon Int'l, Ltd. v. Blocker, 684 F.3d 785, 792 (8th Cir. 2012) (citing Torgerson v. City of Rochester, 643 F.3d 1031, 1042 (8th Cir. 2011) (en banc)). “The evidence of the non-movant is to be believed, and all justifiable inferences are to be drawn in his favor.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255 (1986).

         III. Background

         The following facts are taken from plaintiffs' response to BRK's statement of material facts as to which there is no genuine dispute (Dkt. No. 193). On March 22, 2012, Marilyn Beavers and her children Haylee Singleton, Dequan Singleton, Emily Beavers, and Syndi Singleton were in Ms. Beavers' apartment (Id., at 2). At approximately 2:30 a.m., Ms. Beavers and all of the children spoke on the phone with Furlandare Singleton. After that conversation ended, a fire ignited in Ms. Beavers' apartment (Id.). Ms. Beavers became aware of the fire and attempted to extinguish it (Id., at 3).[1] However, Ms. Beavers and the children ultimately died from smoke inhalation suffered during the fire (Id., at 4). When the fire occurred, a Model 1839WN smoke alarm, which was manufactured by BRK, was installed in the hallway of Ms. Beavers' apartment (Id., at 3).

         IV. Motion For Summary Judgment

         Ms. Beavers, Mr. Singleton, and Mr. Hatchett allege that Ms. Beavers and the children died of smoke inhalation because the BRK smoke alarm in Ms. Beavers' apartment failed to sound an adequate alarm. They bring the following products liability claims against BRK in their amended complaint: (1) strict liability; (2) failure to warn; (3) defective design; (4) negligence; (5) breach of express warranty; (6) breach of the implied warranty of merchantability; and (7) breach of the implied warranty of fitness for a particular purpose (Dkt. No. 27, at 19-33).[2] Ms. Beavers, Mr. Singleton, and Mr. Hatchett also allege wrongful death and survival damages claims against BRK (Dkt. No. 27, at 16-17).

         To prevail on their products liability claims against BRK, plaintiffs bear “the burden of proving both (1) that the [smoke alarm] was defective when it left [BRK's] control such that it was unreasonably dangerous and (2) that the defect caused the injury.” Madden v. Mercedes-Benz USA, Inc., 481 S.W.3d 455, 458-59 (Ark. App. 2016), reh'g denied (Mar. 9, 2016) (citations omitted). BRK argues that it is entitled to summary judgment on all of plaintiffs' claims for two reasons. First, BRK argues that plaintiffs cannot establish that the smoke alarm was defective or unreasonably dangerous (Dkt. No. 90, at 4-6). Second, BRK argues that, even if plaintiffs could establish that the smoke alarm was defective, they could not establish that the smoke alarm's failure to sound a timely alarm proximately caused the deaths of Ms. Beavers and the children (Id., at 6-8).

         V. Elements Of Causes Of Action

         BRK is correct in that all products claims alleged by plaintiffs require proof of a defect or unreasonably dangerous condition of the product and that all claims require proof that the alleged defect was a proximate cause of the decedents' injuries. Further, proof of proximate cause is a requirement for plaintiffs to succeed on their wrongful death and survival damages claims. Scott v. Cent. Arkansas Nursing Centers, Inc., 278 S.W.3d 587, 595 (Ark. App. 2008) (“In a wrongful-death case, the plaintiff must show that the defendant's negligence was the proximate cause of the decedent's death.”).

         A. Strict Products Liability

         For a plaintiff to recover under a theory of strict liability, he or she must prove both: (1) that the product was in a defective condition when it left the defendant's control such that it was unreasonably dangerous and (2) that the defective condition was a proximate cause of the plaintiff's injury. Ark. Code Ann. § 4-86-102(a); Southern Co. v. Graham Drive-In, 607 S.W.2d 677, 679 (Ark. 1980); Madden, 481 S.W.3d at 458-59); see also Ark. Model Jury Inst., Civil 1008 (2017). There are three general varieties of product defects: manufacturing defects, design defects, and inadequate warnings. See generally West v. Searle & Co., 806 S.W.2d 608 (Ark. 1991). Here, Ms. Beavers, Mr. Singleton, and Mr. Hatchett appear to allege strict liability claims based on defective design and inadequate warnings (Dkt. No. 27, ¶ 113).

         To be actionable, a plaintiff must present evidence of the type of defect which renders the product not merely inadequate, but one which poses an actual danger to persons or property. A “defective condition” is one that renders a product unsafe for reasonably foreseeable use and consumption. Ark. Code Ann. § 16-116-102(2). A product is “unreasonably dangerous” if it is dangerous to an extent beyond that which would be contemplated by the ordinary and reasonable user, assuming the ordinary knowledge of the community or similar users as to its characteristics, propensities, risks, dangers, and proper and improper uses, as well as any special knowledge, training, or experience possessed by the user. Ark. Code Ann. § 16-116-102(7).

         It is not necessary that a plaintiff prove the defect by direct proof. However, in the absence of direct proof, the plaintiff must negate other possible causes of the injury not attributable to the defendant, thereby raising a reasonable inference that the injury was caused by a defective product. Southern Co., 607 S.W.2d at 679. Furthermore, it must be proven that the product was defective while it was still in the control of the defendant. Cockman v. Welder's Supply Co., 580 S.W.2d 455, 457-58 (Ark. 1979); see also Chandler v. Wal-Mart Stores Inc., 498 S.W.3d 766, 770 (Ark. App. 2016), reh'g denied (Oct. 5, 2016), review denied, 2017 Ark. 103 (2017).

         The Arkansas Supreme Court discussed the issue of causation in the context of strict products liability in Southern Co.:

Strict liability eliminates both privity and negligence; but it still does not prove the plaintiff's case. He still has the burden of establishing that the particular defendant has sold a product which he should not have sold, and that it has caused his injury. This means that he must prove, first of all, not only that he has been injured, but that he has been injured by the product. The mere possibility that this may have occurred is not enough, and there must be evidence from which the jury may reasonably conclude that it is more probable than not . . . .

607 S.W.2d at 679 (quoting William L. Prosser, The Fall of the Citadel (Strict Liability to the Consumer), 32 ATL L.J., at 21 (1968)).

         In Chandler, plaintiffs argued that they were not required to eliminate all other possible causes of the fire because they supplied direct proof that defendants' product-the serum-was supplied in a defective condition. 498 S.W.3d at 771. The court determined that, even assuming that plaintiffs did supply direct proof, plaintiffs still had to meet proof with proof on the issue of causation and show that it was more than a mere possibility that the product caused the alleged damages. Id.

As the Chandler court further explained:
Strictly speaking, since proof of negligence is not in issue, res ipsa loquitur has no application to strict liability; but the inferences which are the core of the doctrine remain, and are no less applicable. The plaintiff is not required to eliminate all other possibilities, and so prove his case beyond a reasonable doubt. As on other issues in civil actions, it is enough that he makes out a preponderance of probability.
It is enough that the court cannot say that reasonable men on the jury could not find it more likely than not that the fact is true.

Id. (quoting Southern Co., 607 S.W.2d at 679 (quoting William L. Prosser, Handbook on the Law of Torts § 102, at 672 (4th ed. 1971))). Thus, causation cannot be based on mere conjecture and speculation. Chandler, 498 S.W.3d at 771. Arkansas law requires that plaintiff present “substantial evidence” that “negates other possible causes of failure of the product not attributable to the defendant.” Madden, 481 S.W.3d at 459 (citing Higgins v. Gen. Motors Corp., 699 S.W.2d 741 (Ark. 1985)). “Substantial evidence is that which is of sufficient force and character that it will compel a conclusion one way or another. It must force or induce the mind to pass beyond suspicion and conjecture.” Id.

         B. Negligent Failure To Warn Claim

         Under Arkansas law, a manufacturer of a product has a duty to give a reasonable and adequate warning of dangers inherent or reasonably foreseeable in its use, and a violation of this duty is negligence. Ark. Model Jury Inst., Civil 1002 (2017). As a general rule, there is a duty to warn the ultimate user of a product of the risk of the product. See West, 806 S.W.2d at 613. This duty exists under either a negligence theory or a strict-liability theory. Id.

         However, as in the strict-liability claims discussed above, even assuming that BRK had a duty to warn about the smoke detector given its intended or foreseeable use, plaintiffs are still required to show that this failure to warn was the proximate cause of the decedents' alleged injuries. See Hergeth, Inc. v. Green, 733 S.W.2d 409, 411-12 (Ark. 1987); see also Chandler, 498 S.W.3d at 772.

         Ms. Beavers, Mr. Singleton, and Mr. Hatchett specifically allege that BRK failed to warn adequately “of the true risks of their smoke detectors, including that the smoke detector Model 1839-WN's electronic contacts could corrode and fail to sound an audible warning in the presence of smoke from a nearby fire . . . .” (Dkt. No. 27, ¶ 116). Further, they allege that BRK provided “inadequate post-marketing warnings and instruction because BRK knew, or should have known, that there was reasonable evidence that Defendant BRK's smoke detector's electrical contacts would corrode and fail to provide an audible warning of a nearby fire . . . .” (Id., ¶ 118).

         C. Defective Design

         Before strict liability is imposed for a design defect, the plaintiff must show that the product was in a defective condition which rendered it unreasonably dangerous. West v. G.D. Searle & Co., 879 S.W.2d 412, 414 (Ark. 1994). Likewise, for liability to be imposed for negligent design, the plaintiff must demonstrate negligence in the design of the product that was the proximate cause of the damages. See Forrest City Mach. Works, Inc. v. Aderhold, 616 S.W.2d 720, 726 (Ark. 1981).

         Ms. Beavers, Mr. Singleton, and Mr. Hatchett claim that BRK's “smoke detector Model 1839-WN is defective in design because it lacks efficacy and poses a greater likelihood of injury than other similar fire safety devices on the market and is more dangerous than ordinary consumers could reasonably foresee.” (Dkt. No. 27, ¶ 123).

         D. Negligence

         Negligence and strict liability are not mutually exclusive claims. More than one theory of liability is permissible in a products liability claim. Nationwide Rentals Co. v. Carter, 765 S.W.2d 931, 933 (Ark. 1989); W.M. Bashlin Company v. Smith, 643 S.W.2d 526, 529 (Ark. 1982), reh'g denied Jan. 31, 1983. Here, Ms. Beavers, Mr. Singleton, and Mr. Hatchett allege negligent “design, formulation, testing, manufacture, marketing, sale, and distribution” of the smoke detector (Dkt. No. 27, ¶ 131); negligent “advertising and sale” of the smoke detector (Id., ¶ 132); negligent “design, testing, manufacture, marketing, sale and distribution” of the smoke detector (Id., ¶ 133); and negligent labeling and issuing of pre-marketing and post-marketing warnings (Id., ¶ 134). These negligence claims require a showing of duty, breach, and proximate cause. See Ark. Model Jury Inst., Civil 1001, 1002, 1003 (2017).

         E. Breach of Warranty Claims

         Breach of warranty and strict products liability claims are “essentially the same” insofar as both require a product defect attributable to the defendant. Higgins, 699 S.W.2d at 742. A defendant may demonstrate that it is entitled to summary judgment because plaintiff failed to present evidence of a defect, and the presence of a defect is a common element essential to both claims. Madden, 481 S.W.3d at 460. A court is not required to address or negate every element of a claim. Golden Tee, Inc. v. Venture Golf Schs., Inc., 969 S.W.2d 625, 632-33 (Ark. 1998).

         1. Express Warranties

         Ms. Beavers, Mr. Singleton, and Mr. Hatchett allege that BRK created an express warranty that its smoke detector “was safe and effective for use by individuals such as the Decedents.” (Dkt. No. 27, ¶ 139). A failure to demonstrate ...


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