METROPOLITAN PROPERTY & CASUALTY INSURANCE COMPANY v. DEERE & COMPANY et al., SC 18341
Judicial District of Hartford
Torts; Product Liability; Evidence; Experts; Whether Evidence Established that Defect Existed in the Defendant's Tractor at the Time of Sale; Whether Evidence of Tractor's Malfunction was Improperly Admitted into Evidence; Whether Plaintiff's Experts Should have been Precluded from Testifying on the Grounds of Spoliation of Evidence. In 1988, the homeowners bought a lawn tractor made by Deere & Company (Deere). After several years, it began to run poorly and the owners parked it in their garage. Later, a fire started in the garage, which consumed the garage and the homeowners' adjacent home. Pursuant to their homeowner's policy, the plaintiff insurer paid them $749,282.74 for the fire damage. Scott Boris, the plaintiff's fire expert, investigated the scene by using a process called "delayering," which involved examining the debris in the garage and removing any items to the backyard that he concluded could not have caused the fire. Subsequently, the plaintiff, pursuant to the Connecticut Product Liability Act, brought this subrogation action against Deere, alleging that the fire was caused by a defect in the tractor's electrical circuitry. Before trial, Deere filed a motion to preclude Boris and another expert, Thomas Bush, from testifying on the ground that Boris' delayering activities had spoliated critical fire scene evidence. The trial court denied the motion, ruling that, pursuant to Beers v. Bayliner Marine Corp., 236 Conn. 769 (1996), it would instruct the jury that it could draw an inference from the plaintiff's spoliation of evidence that the destroyed evidence would have been unfavorable to the plaintiff. Next, Deere moved to preclude, on relevancy grounds, evidence that the tractor was running roughly immediately before the fire, arguing that there was no nexus between the tractor's rough running and the fire. The court denied the motion, stating that such evidence was admissible based on the "malfunction doctrine." Under that doctrine, a plaintiff may establish a prima facie case of product defect by proving that the product failed in normal use under circumstances suggesting a product defect. At trial, Boris testified that, based on the fire and burn patterns, the tractor was the source of the fire, although he could not identify the actual ignition source. Bush testified that he could rule out all possible causes of a vehicle fire with the exception of an electrical failure. He had no opinion, however, as to whether there was any electrical defect present at the time of the tractor's sale. The jury returned a verdict for the plaintiff, and the court rendered judgment accordingly. On appeal, Deere claims, inter alia, that the judgment should be reversed because the evidence failed to establish that the fire was caused by an electrical defect in the tractor that existed at the time of sale. Deere also claims that the plaintiff's fire experts should have been precluded from testifying based on Boris' spoliation of evidence. Finally, Deere claims that evidence that the tractor was running roughly was improperly admitted because there is no nexus between the alleged malfunction or rough running and the fire.