Fifth Circuit Affirms Dismissal of Product Liability Case Against Propane Heater Manufacturer

The Fifth Circuit affirmed the dismissal of a Louisiana products liability case alleging that defects in a propane heater caused the death of the plaintiff’s husband.  The plaintiff’s expert opined that a propane leak was the most probable cause of the damaging fire and explained that there were five potential areas for fault in the heater that could have caused such a leak.  Despite his opinion, the expert conceded in deposition that there was no evidence to suggest the heater itself was defective and that he could not rule out other potential sources of a leak such as a faulty propane bottle or a failure by the user to secure the safety shutoff valve on the heater.  The Fifth Circuit concluded that the district court properly granted summary judgment to the product manufacturer, as the plaintiff’s expert’s testimony impermissibly required the court to infer the existence of a defect solely from the fact an accident occurred.  Similarly, the Fifth Circuit rejected the plaintiff’s res ipsa loquitur argument, finding that reasonable hypotheses as to other causes of the propane leak and fire remained other than the manufacturer’s negligence.

The plaintiff originally brought the case in Louisiana state court against the defendant manufacturer, its insurers, and a local retail store, but the manufacturer and its insurers removed the case to federal court alleging that the local retail store was improperly joined.  The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana agreed, and the Fifth Circuit concluded that the district court did not err in concluding that the retail store was improperly joined.  Specifically, the complaint failed to allege that the retail store knew or should have known that the product was defective and thus failed to state a claim under Louisiana tort law.  The mere conclusory allegation that the store was negligent under applicable Louisiana law was not enough to withstand the Rule 12(b)(6)-type analysis used in conducting the improper joinder analysis.

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