Prior Incident Evidence Held Inadmissible In Heater Manufacturing Defect Case In Illinois Federal Court

On a camping trip in 2010, a father was killed and his son seriously injured after the “bulk mount” propane radiant heater they were using released a deadly amount of carbon monoxide.  The heater was a large commercial heater, designed to operate off of a 20-pound or larger propane tank, and intended only for outdoor use.  In 2012, the son and his mother filed suit against the heater manufacturer in what ultimately became a manufacturing defect case, and in 2014, the court instructed plaintiffs to identify any prior incidents they intended to introduce into evidence.  Plaintiffs identified 44 incidents involving various models of heaters manufactured by the defendant—3 involving heaters that used 16-ounce propane bottles and 41 involving various bulk-mount heaters including 10 involving the specific model involved in the incident.  Yesterday, the United States District Court for the Southern District of Illinois found that none the previous incidents are admissible.

In its order on plaintiffs’ Memorandum on Substantially Similar Incidents, the court explained that the proponent of other accident evidence must show that the other accidents occurred under substantially similar circumstances.  Moreover, even if a court finds the incidents are substantially similar, it may exclude the evidence if its probative value is substantially outweighed by a danger of unfair prejudice, confusing the issues, misleading the jury, undue delay, wasting time, or needlessly presenting cumulative evidence.  Applying these standards, the court found that the three incidents involving the 16-ounce propane heaters were not substantially similar to the instant accident because the heaters were intended for different uses (inside vs. outside only), contained different warnings, and used different fuel sources.  The court found the other 41 incidents were not substantially similar for purposes of showing a dangerous condition in the instant case because none of the prior incidents involved an alleged manufacturing defect and therefore did not share a common cause with the plaintiffs’ case.  With respect to each of the 44 incidents, the court explained that even if plaintiffs could present evidence that the other accidents were substantially similar, admission would be inappropriate because it would unnecessarily prolong the trial and confuse the jury with the introduction of additional technical evidence.

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