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Defense verdict in products liability suit over wheelchair fire

This was a wrongful-death claim grounded in products liability. Plaintiff claimed that his 70-year-old mother burned to death as a result of an alleged wiring defect and resulting short circuit in an electric self-propelled wheelchair. Alternatively, plaintiff claimed that the wheelchair lacked sufficient flame retardancy in its component parts, and that the chair therefore burned too quickly to allow sufficient time for the decedent to be rescued from the fire.

Plaintiff produced four experts in areas ranging from accident reconstruction and flammability, to cause and origin, to electrical engineering to metallurgy. All alleged that the fire was caused by a wiring defect and that the chair was excessively flammable. Plaintiff was permitted to introduce evidence of other reported incidents of electrical malfunctions and fires involving the manufacturer’s wheelchairs, alleging that these other purported incidents put defendants on notice of a potential product defect.

Defendants’ experts testified that the fire started as the result of a short-circuit event which occurred off the chair at an extension-cord hub. Further, defendants argued that the chair met flammability standards applicable to the industry, and that other considerations related to product use and performance made it impractical to utilize more flame-retardant materials in the chair. Further, Defendants argued that the alleged “other incidents” were unsubstantiated and failed to provide notice of any alleged defect which would be pertinent to plaintiff’s claims here.

The trial lasted four weeks, and after two and a half days of deliberations the jury returned a unanimous verdict in favor of the defendants on liability.

Post-trial interviews with jurors revealed that the case was decided based on a lack of evidence from plaintiff’s experts to prove that the alleged defects in fact existed, coupled with demonstrative testing from defense experts which not only effectively disproved plaintiff’s theories of a wiring defect, but also demonstrated the likelihood of causation at the extension-cord hub.


Verdict Report

Type of action: Products liability/wrongful death

Injuries alleged: Fatal burns

Case name: Estate of Virginia Miller v. Invacare Corp. and American Mobility, LLC

Case number: 08 CVS 11624

Court: Wake County Superior Court

Judge: Hon. Paul Gessner

Verdict or settlement: Jury verdict

Date: Oct. 26, 2010

Amount: Defense verdict

Special damages: None alleged. Plaintiff sought damages for wrongful death, unfair and deceptive trade practices and punitive damages

Demand: Lowest demand at mediation was $16 million, reduced to $10 million during trial.   

Insurer: Self-insured   

Experts: Charles R. Manning Jr., accident reconstruction engineer (Raleigh)

Were liability and/or damages contested? Yes

Was the opposing party represented by legal counsel? Yes

Defendants’ attorney: Jonathan Hall and Bart Goodson, both of Hall, Rodgers & Gaylord (Cary)

Editor’s note: The information in Lawyers Weekly’s verdicts and settlements reports was submitted by the counsel for the prevailing party and represents the attorney’s characterization of the case.

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