White v. Mazda Motor of Am., Inc.

Citation313 Conn. 610,99 A.3d 1079
Decision Date23 September 2014
Docket NumberNo. 19088.,19088.
CourtSupreme Court of Connecticut
PartiesRoland Todd WHITE v. MAZDA MOTOR OF AMERICA, INC., et al.

313 Conn. 610
99 A.3d 1079

Roland Todd WHITE

No. 19088.

Supreme Court of Connecticut.

Argued Oct. 29, 2013.
Decided Sept. 23, 2014.

99 A.3d 1083

Alexander J. Sarris, with whom, on the brief, was Frank J. McCoy, Jr., Tolland, for the appellant (plaintiff).

Paul D. Williams, with whom, on the brief, was John W. Cerreta, Hartford, for the appellees (named defendant et al.).

Brenden P. Leydon, Stamford, filed a brief for the Connecticut Trial Lawyers Association as amicus curiae.

Cristin E. Sheehan and Jonathan M. Hoffman, pro hac vice, filed a brief for the Product Liability Advisory Council, Inc., as amicus curiae.




313 Conn. 612

In this certified appeal, we consider whether the plaintiff, Roland Todd White, preserved for appellate review a claim under the malfunction theory of products liability. The malfunction theory allows a plaintiff in a product liability action to rely on circumstantial evidence to support an inference that an unspecified defect attributable to a product seller was the most likely cause of a product malfunction when other possible causes of the malfunction are absent. See generally Metropolitan Property & Casualty Ins. Co. v. Deere & Co., 302 Conn. 123, 131–33, 25 A.3d 571 (2011). In the present case, the plaintiff initiated a product liability action against the defendants, Mazda Motor of America, Inc. (Mazda), and Cartwright

99 A.3d 1084

Auto, LLC,1 after his Mazda3 sedan caught fire on the side of the highway approximately one month after the plaintiff purchased the vehicle and had driven it about 2800

313 Conn. 613

miles. The trial court granted the defendants' motion for summary judgment after the plaintiff failed to produce competent expert testimony to support his claim that a specific defect in the vehicle's fuel system caused the fire and that the fire was the proximate cause of the plaintiff's injuries. On appeal to the Appellate Court, however, the plaintiff principally claimed that he could prove his case by claiming the existence of some unspecified product defect under the malfunction theory of products liability. See White v. Mazda Motor of America, Inc., 139 Conn.App. 39, 46–47 n. 9, 54 A.3d 643 (2012). The Appellate Court, with one judge dissenting, determined that the plaintiff had not raised the malfunction theory in the trial court and thus did not preserve it for appellate review. See id. at 47 n. 9, 54 A.3d 643 ; see also id. at 51, 54 A.3d 643 (West, J., dissenting). After concluding that the plaintiff did not support his specific defect claim with competent expert testimony, the Appellate Court affirmed the trial court's judgment. Id. at 50–51, 54 A.3d 643.

The plaintiff filed a petition for certification to appeal, which we granted, limited to the following issues. First, “[d]id the Appellate Court properly conclude that the plaintiff had failed to raise the malfunction theory claim at trial?”White v. Mazda Motor of America, Inc., 307 Conn. 949, 60 A.3d 741 (2013). Second, “[i]f the answer to the first question is in the negative, did the plaintiff present a prima facie case under the ‘malfunction theory’ of products liability?” Id. at 950, 60 A.3d 741. Because we agree with the Appellate Court that the plaintiff did not preserve his malfunction theory claim for appellate review, we answer the first certified question in the affirmative and do not reach the merits of the plaintiff's claim under the second certified question. Accordingly, we affirm the judgment of the Appellate Court.


In the predawn hours of a mid-November morning in 2006, the plaintiff, who worked a night shift, left work

313 Conn. 614

after his shift ended and began his sixty mile commute home, driving alone on Interstate 395 in his Mazda3 sedan. The plaintiff had purchased the vehicle, new, approximately one month earlier and had made the trip between his home and work about forty times, for a total of about 2800 miles. The ride home that morning was uneventful, at least for the first forty-five miles. At that point, the plaintiff smelled gasoline and pulled over to the shoulder of the highway to investigate. Other than the gasoline smell, the plaintiff did not observe anything unusual about the vehicle's condition, gauges, lighting, or switches, and did not feel any heat or see any smoke. After pulling over, the plaintiff opened the hood to look at the engine, and saw a “flash” and “slight explosion” that caused him to fall backward. The plaintiff was not burned, but he did injure his left knee during his fall and was later treated. The engine caught fire, and the local fire department responded and extinguished it. Prior to the fire, the plaintiff had no problems with the vehicle, did not complain about it to anyone, and was satisfied with its operation.

The plaintiff later brought this action against the defendants to recover for the

99 A.3d 1085

injuries to his left knee.2 The plaintiff alleged that a defect within the vehicle's fuel system caused a fire or explosion in the engine that, in turn, caused the plaintiff to suffer “from pain and injuries to his left knee and left leg, all of which were caused by the accident or were the result of an aggravation of a preexisting condition.”

The plaintiff alleged a number of reasons why the vehicle was defective, which the Appellate Court summarized as follows: “(1) the fuel lines on the fuel rail of the vehicle were pressed onto the fitting at the fuel rail in such a way that a fuel leak occurred and caused

313 Conn. 615

a fire; (2) the fuel lines were installed or secured with clamps improperly, which caused damage to the lines, resulting in a fuel leak and a fire; (3) [Mazda] negligently installed the fuel lines on the vehicle in an incorrect manner, causing a fuel leak and a fire; (4) [Mazda] negligently failed to design the vehicle and its component parts so that it would not be a hazard to a consumer purchaser; (5) the defendants negligently failed to test or inspect the vehicle and its component parts; (6) the defendants manufactured or sold the vehicle with defective component parts or a defective engine, thereby causing a hazard to users of the vehicle; (7) the defendants failed to warn the plaintiff of the aforesaid conditions; (8) the defendants breached their statutory warranty of merchantability in that the vehicle was not fit for the ordinary purpose for which it was sold; and (9) the defendants sold the vehicle in a defective, unsafe and dangerous condition, thereby subjecting the plaintiff to an unreasonable risk of injury.”White v. Mazda Motor of America, Inc., supra, 139 Conn.App. at 41–42, 54 A.3d 643.

During discovery, the plaintiff disclosed a proposed expert witness, Richard E. Morris, who would testify that the incident involving the plaintiff's vehicle was caused by a specific malfunction in the vehicle's fuel system. According to the disclosure, Morris, a fire investigator, would “testify that he conducted an origin and cause fire investigation of the plaintiff's vehicle” and that he “may opine that the plastic clips and/or gasket that held the supply lines into the fuel rail were inadequately designed, constructed and/or installed.” According to the plaintiff's disclosure, Morris “further concluded that the plastic clips easily disengaged to allow the fuel line to slip off and allow free gasoline to leak into the engine.”

The defendants later deposed Morris, who concluded that a poorly designed fuel clip or gasket in or on the vehicle fuel line failed and caused the fire. The trial

313 Conn. 616

court observed, however, that Morris had testified that he was “not an expert in automobile mechanics, automobile electronics, the design or manufacture of any automobile components related to fuel lines, [or] the design ... or the manufacture of automobiles.” In addition, and significantly, Morris declined to offer an opinion about whether the plaintiff's vehicle was defective.

On the basis of the allegations in the pleadings and the facts disclosed during discovery, the defendants filed a motion for summary judgment. In their motion, the defendants made two distinct arguments about the adequacy of the plaintiff's evidence with respect to two of the elements of a product liability claim.3 First,

99 A.3d 1086

the defendants argued that the plaintiff did not produce evidence that his vehicle had a defect because the plaintiff's proposed expert, a fire investigator, was not qualified to render an opinion about automobile defects and, in any event, declined to offer an opinion about whether the vehicle was defective. According to the defendants, the plaintiff's claims involved an alleged defect in a complex automobile engine, and, thus, the...

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