Logan v. Montgomery Ward & Co., Inc.

Decision Date01 December 1975
Docket NumberNo. 741053,741053
CourtVirginia Supreme Court

S. W. Tucker, Richmond (James W. Benton, Jr., Hill, Tucker & Marsh, Richmond, on brief), for plaintiff in error.

Thomas S. Word, Jr., Richmond (Rosewell Page, III, E. Duncan Getchell, Jr., McGuire, Woods & Battle, Richmond, on brief), for defendant in error.


HARRISON, Justice.

Dorothy Logan sought to recover a judgment for personal injuries and property damage allegedly suffered by her as a result of the explosion of a gas stove purchased from Montgomery Ward & Co., Incorporated, and installed by Bottled Gas Corporation of Virginia. Upon trial of the case, the lower court sustained motions to strike appellant's evidence and entered summary judgment for the defendants. Appellant has appealed as to Montgomery Ward only.

On August 29, 1969, the plaintiff purchased a new 'Signature' gas range from Montgomery Ward at its retail outlet in Baltimore, Maryland. The stove was loaded on a truck by employees of Montgomery Ward and transported by members of appellant's family from Baltimore to her home in Brunswick County.

On September 2, 1969, Thomas S. Moseley, an employee of Bottled Gas Corporation, installed the stove at the request of Mrs. Logan. He located two propane gas fuel tanks outside the house and ran a copper tubing from the regulator on the tanks to a point under the kitchen and then into the house, connecting the tubing or line to the manifold located under one of the back burners on top of the range. Moseley testified that the stove was routinely and properly installed and that the necessary pressure checks were made to establish that there was no leak in the line or the stove.

After the installation Moseley showed appellant how to operate the stove, advising her that to activate the oven or one of the burners, she need only push and turn a knob and the indicated burner would be ignited by an automatic pilot light. The only controls accessible to her were five knobs, one controlling the oven burner and the others controlling the four top burners. Moseley said that when he left the Logan home there was no leak in the line, and the stove was operating properly.

Mrs. Logan testified that from the date of installation until September 21st she had no occasion to use and did not use the oven. Only the top burners were used during that period and without incident. On the morning of September 21st, appellant said that she heated some 'pre-cooked rolls' in the oven; that she used the oven according to the directions which Mr. Moseley had given her; that she pushed the button in and turned the knob to 500 , or broil; that the oven came on, and she set the rolls in it; and that after they were brown she removed the rolls and turned the stove off, at which time 'it said bloop'. She said 'didn't nothing blow up at that time. It just gave a noise, and I closed the door'.

Mrs. Logan then served breakfast. She said that after her son had finished eating and gotten up from the table, she took the dishes off, arranged the chairs around the table and went to wash the dishes. It was at this point the explosion occurred. She said, 'All I know, I was in a big flame of fire.' She said she 'just heard something like a bam . . . it just sounded like somebody would hit something . . . it sounded like a hard hit against the wall or something of that sort . . .'

Mrs. Logan was engulfed in flames when rescued by her son. She was immediately taken to the Community Memorial Hospital in South Hill and, following emergency treatment for injuries and burns, was sent to Medical College of Virginia Hospital in Richmond. The kitchen, dining room and back porch of the house were consumed by the fire, and a portion of a bedroom was severely damaged. The broiler door of the stove was blown across the kitchen and embedded in a wall. The oven door was blown across the kitchen into a hallway some 24 feet from the stove. After the fire, the stove, refrigerator and other kitchen furniture were found 'charred up and burned to pieces'. According to the testimony, the stove, along with other debris, was carried to a public dump a few days after the fire.

There is evidence that a defect in the stove could cause gas to collect within it, and also that a defect in the gas line from the tanks to the stove could cause gas to collect in the stove. The only evidence that there was any leak in the stove or line, between the date of the stove's installation and the date of the explosion, is the testimony of Mrs. Logan that on the day prior to the explosion, a relative, who was sitting in her kitchen, said that he could smell gas. She said that she went to the stove, tried the knobs and found that 'they were as far as they would go'. She said that after she had checked the stove, she 'didn't pay it any more attention because I still couldn't smell any gas'.

The evidence establishes that there was an explosion and a resulting fire, and that the personal injuries and property damage sustained by Mrs. Logan were proximately caused thereby. In her brief, appellant says the question presented on appeal is:

'When the plaintiff has proved that, without intervening cause, an explosion occurred within the oven of the gas range following her initial use of the oven and that damage ensued, does the seller who warranted the fitness of the gas range have the burden of going forward with the evidence?'

Appellee poses the question to be:

'May a defect in a retail product be reasonably inferred merely from evidence of careful transportation, installation and use followed by an unexplained accident so as to permit submission of the question of defect to a jury?'

Mrs. Logan's cause of action depends upon the existence of a defect in the stove at the time it left the control of Montgomery Ward. The standard of safety of goods imposed on the seller or manufacturer of a product is essentially the same whether the theory of liability is labeled warranty or negligence. The product must be fit for the ordinary purposes for which it is to be used. There was an implied warranty of merchantability that the stove was reasonably safe for its intended use. Under either the warranty theory or the negligence theory the plaintiff must show, (1) that the goods were unreasonably dangerous either for the use to which they would ordinarily be put or for some other reasonably foreseeable purpose, and (2) that the unreasonably dangerous condition existed when the goods left the defendant's hands. See Turner v. Manning, Maxwell & Moore, 216 Va. 245, 217 S.E.2d 863 (1975), and Chestnut v. Ford Motor Company, 445 F.2d 967, 968 n. 1 (4th Cir. 1971). The damaged stove, having been moved from the Logan premises, was never subjected to an examination by any expert knowledgeable in the manufacture, mechanical operation and installation of gas ranges. Without such examination, designed to elicit the cause of the explosion, and without the range itself, appellant was handicapped in her effort to prove, directly or inferentially, a case of negligence or breach of warranty.

The mere fact of an explosion does not establish the negligence of either the manufacturer or seller of the stove, and does not establish that the stove was defective. Explosions of gas ranges can be attributed to numerous causes, including the care with which the stove is operated and maintained by its owner. The testimony in the instant case disclosed that after a range is installed, its movement for any appreciable distance could loosen or disrupt the gas line and adjustments to it. Further, and notwithstanding the abandonment by appellant of her alleged cause of action against Bottled Gas, the...

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