ROLAND TODD WHITE v. MAZDA MOTOR OF AMERICA, INC., et al.,
Judicial District of Hartford
Product Liability; Whether Plaintiff Properly Raised a Malfunction Theory Claim Before the Trial Court and, if so, Whether Plaintiff Submitted Sufficient Evidence to Establish a Prima Facie Product Liability Case Under that Theory. In 2006, the plaintiff purchased a new vehicle from Cartwright Auto, LLC (dealership). Approximately one month later, the vehicle allegedly caught on fire, causing the plaintiff to sustain injuries. The plaintiff subsequently brought this product liability action against the dealership and the manufacturer of the vehicle, Mazda Motor of America, Inc., alleging that the vehicle was defective and unreasonably dangerous. The defendants filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that the plaintiff produced no evidence, expert or otherwise, establishing that the vehicle was defectively designed or manufactured or that the alleged defect caused the plaintiff’s injuries. The trial court granted the motion, finding that, because the plaintiff’s expert did not offer an opinion as to whether the vehicle was defectively designed or manufactured, the plaintiff failed to provide sufficient expert testimony to establish a prima facie product liability case. The plaintiff appealed, arguing that he had submitted sufficient circumstantial evidence to establish a prima facie case that the vehicle was defective at the time of its sale pursuant to the “malfunction theory,” which permits a plaintiff to establish a prima facie case on the basis of circumstantial evidence when direct evidence of a defect is unavailable. Under that doctrine, when a relatively new product fails to perform its intended function, the mere fact that the product failed provides support for an inference that the product was defective, regardless of whether the plaintiff presented expert testimony. The Appellate Court (139 Conn. App. 39) determined that the plaintiff had failed to raise the applicability of the malfunction theory before the trial court. The court stated that, in opposing the motion for summary judgment, the plaintiff maintained that he had provided sufficient evidence to establish that the vehicle’s design was defective or that certain automotive parts had been installed improperly. The court emphasized that, in support of his contention, the plaintiff relied on the opinions of his expert rather than the malfunction theory. In light of its conclusion that the plaintiff did not raise his malfunction theory claim before the trial court, the Appellate Court declined to address the issue of whether the motion for summary judgment should have been denied under that theory. In this appeal, the Supreme Court will decide whether the Appellate Court properly declined to consider the plaintiff’s malfunction theory claim and, if not, whether the plaintiff submitted sufficient evidence to establish a prima facie case under the malfunction theory.