487 F.2d 485 (4th Cir. 1973), 72-1832, Denny v. Seaboard Lacquer, Inc.

Docket Nº:72-1832.
Citation:487 F.2d 485
Party Name:James W. DENNY, Administrator of the Estate of James N. Denny, by Roger L. Smith, Ancillary Administrator of the Estate of James N. Denny, to his own use and to the use of Insurance Company of North America, Appellant, v. SEABOARD LACQUER, INC., Appellee.
Case Date:November 20, 1973
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit

Page 485

487 F.2d 485 (4th Cir. 1973)

James W. DENNY, Administrator of the Estate of James N. Denny, by Roger L. Smith, Ancillary Administrator of the Estate of James N. Denny, to his own use and to the use of Insurance Company of North America, Appellant,



No. 72-1832.

United States Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit.

November 20, 1973

Resubmitted Sept. 5, 1973.

Page 486

Oliver B. Dickins, Jr., Nashville, Tenn. (Abraham L. Adler, Baltimore, Md., and Moe Levine, New York City, on brief), for appellant.

Barrett W. Freedlander, Baltimore, Md. (Robert H. Williams, Jr., Raymond F. Altman and Niles, Barton & Wilmer, Baltimore, Md., on brief), for appellee.

Before WINTER, RUSSELL, and WIDENER, Circuit Judges.

WIDENER, Circuit Judge:

Plaintiff-appellant, James W. Denny, is the administrator of the estate of James N. Denny (hereinafter Denny) who was killed as a result of an explosion which occurred while Denny was using a quantity of floor sealer which was manufactured by defendant-appellee, Seaboard Lacquer, Inc. (hereinafter Seaboard). In the court below, Seaboard moved for summary judgment, which motion was granted as against Denny but not against other plaintiffs with which we are not concerned in this appeal. For the purposes of disposing of the motion, Seaboard conceded the truth of the factual allegations favorable to Denny. Those facts may be summarized as follows: Denny was a floor finisher by vocation. At the time of the accident, he was engaged in applying a quantity of Seaboard floor sealer to a house which was near completion in Mt. Hope, Alabama. The house was being constructed by Jones Lumber Company, a Tennessee Corporation which builds houses in several states, including Alabama. It is not clear whether Denny worked directly for Jones or for one Strange, a subcontractor of Jones, but the important point is that Denny was

Page 487

using the product in the course of his calling and the product was manufactured by Seaboard.

Denny and two other workers, Wood and Cagle, slept in the house the night before the accident. They had the house closed up due to the cold January weather and they used an electric heater in the bedroom in which they slept. Early in the morning, Denny and Wood arose and went into the kitchen. Denny went into the kitchen first, and, when Wood came in, Denny was having coffee. Denny left the kitchen with a quantity of floor sealer and went toward the front bedroom to begin work. As Denny passed the back bedroom, he rapped on the door to awaken Cagle, who was still sleeping. Denny then went into the front bedroom and began work, and Cagle joined Wood in the kitchen.

When Cagle left the back bedroom, he left the door open and the electric heater on. The door to the front bedroom, in which Denny was working, was closed, although Denny probably had a window open. Cagle and Wood were sitting in the kitchen while Denny was working; approximately twenty minutes from the time Cagle woke up and about five minutes from the time Cagle entered the kitchen, he and Wood heard a loud "holler" from Denny. So intense was the heat from the combustion of the floor sealer that Wood and Cagle could not open the door to get out. Wood crashed through a window to escape, and Cagle has no memory as to how he and Denny got out of the house. Wood and Cagle, though severely burned, survived. Denny died two days later.

Of course, it may never be known for certain what occasioned the combustion of the floor sealer. The circumstances certainly point to the open faced, hot coil electric heater in the adjacent bedroom. Denny's administrator, Wood and Cagle sued Seaboard, and the suits were consolidated. Denny alleged causes of action grounded in negligence, strict liability in tort, implied warranty and wanton conduct. Following a hearing on defendant's motion for summary judgment, the trial court granted defendant's motion as against Denny. The district court ruled that Alabama law would govern the substantive aspects of the case. The parties have accepted this ruling on appeal. The district court also necessarily ruled, and Denny conceded, that Alabama courts do not recognize the theory of strict liability in tort, to which Denny originally took no exception here. 1 The court stated that Wood and Cagle had stated good causes of action in negligence but that Denny could not maintain a cause of action under the Alabama wrongful death act for negligence. The court construed the Alabama wrongful death act as requiring gross negligence or wanton disregard of the consequences by the defendant before an action could be maintained. The court further stated, with reference to gross negligence or wanton disregard of the consequences, "it is quite clear that the Plaintiffs cannot prove these facts and the Defendant would be entitled to summary judgment in the Denny case." The trial court also rejected Denny's implied warranty cause of action under the Uniform Commercial Code (Alabama Code, Title 7A, § 2-314) as stated in the complaint. We are thus faced with three issues on this appeal.

I. Whether the trial court correctly ruled that Alabama law does not recognize ordinary negligence as giving rise to an action for wrongful death?

II. Whether a breach of implied warranty will support a wrongful death action under Alabama law?

III. Whether the court erred in ruling on motion for summary judgment that defendant's conduct could not, as a matter of law, be deemed wanton or gross negligence?

An added problem is whether plaintiff should not be allowed to proceed on the theory of strict liability in tort in view of Geohagan v. General Motors Corp., 291 Ala. 167, 279 So.2d 436 (1973).

Page 488


It is familiar learning that, at common law, there was no cause of action for wrongful death. The action died with the person. It is only by virtue of the widespread adoption of wrongful death statutes following Lord...

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