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State Farm Fire and Casualty Co. v. Nutone

February 1, 2008

STATE FARM FIRE AND CASUALTY COMPANY, A/S/O/ JAMES AND DEBORAH TELBAN, PLAINTIFF,
v.
NUTONE, INC., DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Michael A. Telesca United States District Judge

DECISION and ORDER

INTRODUCTION

Plaintiff State Farm Fire and Casualty Company ("State Farm") brings this action against defendant Nutone, Inc. ("Nutone") claiming that a combination ceiling fan and light fixture manufactured by Nutone ("the Nutone fan") malfunctioned thereby causing a fire at the home of James and Deborah Telban. State Farm, as subrogee of James and Deborah Telban, seeks damages against Nutone based on theories of strict liability, negligence, failure to warn, and breech of implied warranty.

Defendant Nutone moves to exclude the testimony of plaintiff's expert John Mulcahy ("Mulcahy") on grounds that Mulcahy's testimony is not sufficiently reliable under accepted scientific standards, and therefore is inadmissible at trial. Defendant further contends that if Mulcahy's testimony is excluded, plaintiff's complaint must be dismissed for failure to establish that the defendant's product was the proximate cause of the fire.

BACKGROUND

James and Deborah Telban ("the Telban's") are the owners of a home located at 89 Lucinda Lane, Rochester, N.Y. ("the Telban home"). The home was built in 1985, and was purchased by the Telban's in 1998. The home has two bathrooms on the upstairs level, one of which is a master bathroom. Each bathroom had an identical combination exhaust fan and light installed in the ceiling, both of which were installed at the time the home was built.

According to James Telban, ("Mr. Telban") on either the evening of July 19, 2002, or the morning of July 20, 2002, he noticed that the fan in the master bathroom was "making a noise," which he further described as a "humming noise." In response to hearing this noise, he turned the fan off and warned his wife not to use the fan because there appeared to be a problem with it.

On July 20, 2002, Deborah Telban ("Mrs. Telban") took two showers in the master bathroom, one in the morning, and one in the afternoon. Mrs. Telban could not recall whether or not she used the fan during either of her showers. Although she stated that it was her habit to turn the fan on, she was unsure as to whether or not she had turned the fan "on" on the day of July 20, 2002.

During the evening of July 20, 2002, a neighbor called the Telban residence and informed Mr. Telban that smoke was coming out of the top of his home. Mr. Telban investigated, and upon entering the master bathroom, found the plastic cover of the light portion of the exhaust fan melted and on the floor. When he looked up at the fan, he saw flames coming from the area of the fan and rising to the attic.

The Town of Greece Fire Department arrived at the scene and extinguished the fire. Thereafter, investigators Norman Gerhard and Mark Dobner of the Town of Greece Fire Department Fire Investigation Unit investigated the cause of the fire. Officer Gerhard concluded that the fire started above the second-floor master bathroom in the area of the exhaust fan. Officer Gerhard also concluded that the fire originated in the area of the ceiling fan.

Following the fire, State Farm hired investigator Trey Johnson to determine the cause of the fire. Johnson visited the scene of the fire, and following his investigation, concluded that the fire started in the area of the exhaust fan as a result of a malfunction in the fan. State Farm then retained John Mulcahy, a professional engineer who consults with clients as an electrical forensic engineer, to determine whether or not the fan was the cause of the fire. Upon examining the fan, along with the fan found in the other bathroom of the home, and upon reviewing the various fire investigation reports, Mulcahy concluded that "the fire was caused when the motor windings of the exhaust fan became extremely overheated and ignited nearby combustible insulation material." March 22, 2007 Affidavit of John Mulcahy (the "Mulcahy Affidavit") at ¶ 19. More specifically, Mulcahy opined that the motor seized up and stopped turning as a result of a build-up of debris around the fan. Mulcahy Affidavit at ¶ 21. According to Mulcahy, the seizure of the fan would have caused the motor to overheat. Mulcahy Affidavit at ¶ 25. Mulcahy contends that the heat from the motor caused the debris surrounding the fan to become combustible at a lower temperature than normal (a process referred to as "pyrolysis"), and that a spark (which resulted from a wire becoming dislodged) ignited the material. Mulcahy Affidavit at ¶ 30.

DISCUSSION

I. Defendant's Motion to Preclude

Defendant moves pursuant to Rule 702 of the Federal Rules of Evidence to preclude testimony from plaintiffs' expert John Mulcahy on grounds that Mulcahy's opinions are not based on scientific knowledge, but instead are speculative and conclusory, and therefore are inadmissible at trial. Specifically, defendant argues that Mulcahy's testimony is inadmissible because: (1) his conclusions are based on unsupported assumptions; (2) he relies on the discredited theory of "pyrolysis" to explain the origin of the fire at the Telban home; and (3) he failed to perform any testing to validate his theories.

Plaintiff opposes defendant's motion on grounds that there is a valid factual basis for each of Mulcahy's assumptions and that pyrolysis is an accepted theory in the scientific community.

For the reasons set forth below, I find that there is insufficient scientific evidence to support Mulcahy's theory that lint and debris could have caused the fan motor to seize, or that heat from the fan motor could have caused the lint and debris material that allegedly surrounded the fan to become "pyrolized." Mulcahy may, however, testify that the motor did seize, and that the motor overheated as a result. Similarly, although Mulcahy may not testify as to the alleged pyrolysis of the lint, debris, or insulation ...


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