274 N.W.2d 647 (Wis. 1979), 76-233, Cogswell v. Robertshaw Controls Co.

Docket Nº:76-233.
Citation:274 N.W.2d 647, 87 Wis.2d 243
Opinion Judge:The opinion of the court was delivered by: Day
Party Name:Merton B. COGSWELL and Vera J. Cogswell, Harold E. Robbins and Audrey S. Robbins, Lillian Peterson and Roger K. Peterson, Roger Leland Peterson, a minor by his Guardian ad litem, John W. Fetzner, Plaintiffs, v. ROBERTSHAW CONTROLS COMPANY and The Travelers Insurance Company, Appellants, ITT-General Controls, Inc., Respondent.
Attorney:For the appellants the cause was submitted on the brief of Doar, Drill, Norman, Bakke, Bell & Skow of New Richmond.
Case Date:January 30, 1979
Court:Supreme Court of Wisconsin
 
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Page 647

274 N.W.2d 647 (Wis. 1979)

87 Wis.2d 243

Merton B. COGSWELL and Vera J. Cogswell, Harold E. Robbins

and Audrey S. Robbins, Lillian Peterson and Roger K.

Peterson, Roger Leland Peterson, a minor by his Guardian ad

litem, John W. Fetzner, Plaintiffs,

v.

ROBERTSHAW CONTROLS COMPANY and The Travelers Insurance

Company, Appellants,

ITT-General Controls, Inc., Respondent.

No. 76-233.

Supreme Court of Wisconsin.

January 30, 1979

Submitted on Briefs Nov. 29, 1978.

[87 Wis.2d 244] Doar, Drill, Norman, Bakke, Bell & Skow, New Richmond, for appellants.

[87 Wis.2d 245] Wilcox & Wilcox, Eau Claire, for respondent.

DAY, Justice.

This is an appeal from a judgment dismissing the third-party complaint and cross-complaints of the defendants Robertshaw Controls Company and The Travelers Insurance Company (appellants) against defendant ITT-General Controls, Inc. (respondent), entered July 20, 1976, the Honorable Robert F. Pfiffner, presiding.

The question on appeal is: Was the finding by the trial judge that a defect in the Unitrol valve in the water heater manufactured by Robertshaw caused an explosion injuring the plaintiffs against the great weight and clear preponderance of the evidence?

This case involves a dispute between two manufacturers as to whose product was responsible for causing a gas explosion in the basement of a summer cabin on Upper Eau Claire Lake in Bayfield County.

In September of 1965, Colonel Roger K. Peterson and Lillian Peterson acquired the cabin which they used over a period of five years as a vacation home. In the basement

Page 648

of the cabin there was a propane gas fired furnace containing an ITT-General Control B52 valve and pilot relay valve. There was also a water heater in the basement containing a Robertshaw Unitrol 110 control which regulated the flow of gas to the main burner and the pilot burner. In the case of each appliance, the valve was designed to shut down the flow of gas in the event that the pilot light was extinguished. In addition, there was an electrically activated water pump in the basement.

Colonel Peterson followed a routine of shutting down the gas and water system at the end of the vacation season every fall, and re-establishing the systems in the following spring. The first time he lit the water heater after acquiring the cabin, he had trouble lighting the pilot light, but thereafter he never had any trouble with [87 Wis.2d 246] either appliance until the accident. Col. Peterson was the only one who either activated or shut down the furnace or water heater during the period from 1965 to 1971, except for one occasion when he contracted with a local plumbing and heating company to start up the systems.

At Easter, 1971, Col. Peterson re-established the flow of gas and water into the house and lit the burners in the furnace and water heater. From that time on until the accident, July 20, 1971, no one manipulated the controls on the water heater or the furnace.

A few days before the accident, Mrs. Peterson and her two children went up to the cabin. Colonel Peterson was away on assignment with the Air Force. On the evening of July 20, 1971 around 9:00 or 9:15 p. m., Mrs. Peterson ran water in the kitchen sink to clean up the kitchen when she noticed that there was no hot water. On inquiry, she learned that her daughter had run a bath at about 7:00 p. m. and the water "wasn't all that warm." Mrs. Peterson went down to the basement to investigate and saw that there was no flame in the pilot or main burner of the water heater. However, she saw that the dial on the...

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