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State Farm Fire & Casualty Co. v. Nutone

August 9, 2010

STATE FARM FIRE & CASUALTY COMPANY A/S/O KEVIN CURRAN AND ELIZABETH CURRAN, PLAINTIFF,
v.
NUTONE, INC., DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Wall, Magistrate Judge

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

Plaintiff State Farm Fire & Casualty Co. ("State Farm") commenced this diversity, products liability action against Broan Nutone, Inc. ("Nutone") to recover monies paid out to its insureds, Kevin and Elizabeth Currran, as a result of fire damage at the Currans' home. Plaintiff alleges that the fire was caused by a faulty bathroom ceiling fan in the home that was manufactured by defendant Nutone. Nutone disputes that the fire originated in the bathroom fan, and argues that even if the fire had started in the fan, the unit was modified subsequent to its manufacture to remove a safety feature. State Farm claims that if the fan was modified, Nutone failed to warn users regarding the consequences of that modification.

A "Notice, Consent, and Order of Reference for the Exercise of Jurisdiction by a United States Magistrate Judge" was signed by both parties and approved by District Judge Spatt on November 28, 2006. Docket Entry ("DE") [17]. By Memorandum and Order dated September 30, 2008, the undersigned denied defendant's motion for summary judgment, finding that issues of fact existed. See DE [55]. Accordingly, a non-jury trial was held before the undersigned on May 12, 13, and 14, 2009. After completion of the trial, defendant Nutone declared bankruptcy, resulting in a stay of this case. The bankruptcy proceeding has been completed and thus the stay of this case has lifted.

At trial, plaintiff presented testimony of Michael Mirrer, Elizabeth Curran, Kevin Curran, Peter Pruyn, Thomas Karn, Joseph Cristino, and Oscar Berendsohn, as well as deposition testimony of Robert Mahoney; Michael Lane, and Eliot Duncan testified for the defense, and Nutone submitted deposition testimony from John Allison. Based on the evidence presented, as well as the post trial materials submitted by the parties, the court makes the following findings of fact and conclusions of law in accordance with Rule 52 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. To the extent that any of the findings of fact may be deemed a legal conclusion, it shall be deemed a conclusion of law, and vice versa.

I. FINDINGS OF FACT

A. Stipulated Facts

According to the joint pretrial order submitted by the parties, ("PTO") DE [61], the parties have stipulated to the following facts. On September 18, 2004, a fire took place at a residence located at 171 Country Village Lane, East Islip, New York (hereinafter "the residence"). The residence was owned by Kevin and Elizabeth Curran and insured by plaintiff State Farm. State Farm made payments totaling $227,064.56 for damages sustained as a result of the fire. State Farm was subrogated to the Currans' rights under the insurance policy, and the parties have stipulated to damages in the amount of $227,065.00.

The residence is a one family, split level home built in 1959. The Currans purchased the residence on July 9, 1999. At that time, the upstairs bathroom was equipped with a Nutone Model Number 668N Bath Fan/Light combination ceiling unit (the "Nutone bathroom fan" or the "bathroom fan"). The Nutone bathroom fan was installed prior to the purchase of the residence by the Currans. From October 28, 1994 to July 9, 1999, the residence was owned by Michael Mirrer. From August 1985 to October 1994, the residence was owned by Cathy and Robert Mahoney.

The Nutone bathroom fan was manufactured by Nutone between 1985 and 1988. The fan contained three sub-assemblies consisting of a lamp, box, and a motor sub-assembly. The motor sub-assembly was not manufactured by Nutone, but rather by non-party Jakel Company, Inc. ("Jakel Co.").

B. Installation of the Bathroom Fan

The parties stipulated to the fact that the bathroom fan was already installed in the second floor bathroom when the Currans purchased the house. Kevin Curran testified that he did not change any of the fixtures in the bathroom, nor did he hire anyone to repair or modify the bathroom fan. Trial Transcript ("Tr.") at 52. Elizabeth Curran also testified that they never hired an electrician to repair or modify the bathroom fan. Tr. at 36. Some electrical work was done at the back of the house incident to extending the den. Tr. at 59. The Currans also had central air conditioning installed, which involved the performance of some electrical work in the attic above the bathroom. Tr. at 59. Kevin Curran testified that about a month before the fire, the bathroom fan periodically made a humming noise. Tr. at 54. He did not attempt to fix the unit, nor did he observe any sparks coming from it. Tr. at 54.

The previous owner, Michael Mirrer, lived in the residence from October 1994 to July 1999, at which time he sold the property to the Currans. Tr. at 27, 28. He testified that during the time he lived in the residence, there was a fan in the ceiling of the bathroom. He did not install the bathroom fan, he did not modify it himself, and he did not pay anyone to repair or modify it. Tr. at 29. He does not recall any electrical problems with the fan, and he did not have any electrical work done in the house during his ownership of it. Tr. at 29. He reported that he had no problem with the light going on and off intermittently. Tr. at 30.

The owner previous to Mr. Mirrer was Robert Mahoney. PTO at 3. Mahoney and his family lived there from August 1985 until October 1994. Pl's Ex, 12, Mahoney Dep. at 7. He had no specific recollection as to whether the bathroom fan was already in the house when he moved in or whether they had it installed. Id. at 9-10. The Mahoneys renovated the bathroom in the early 1990s, and Mr. Mahoney stated that it was possible that they had the bathroom fan installed at that time. Id. at 15, 18. Mahoney did not experience any problems with the bathroom fan during the time he owned the home. Id. at 11.

Both cloth clad and plastic clad wiring existed in the bathroom. Tr. at 249. An electrician would use one type or the other, not both, thus indicating that work was done in the area on two different occasions. Tr. at 249.

C. Point of Origin of the Fire

On the night of the fire, Mr. Curran was at work and Mrs. Curran was home with their children. Tr. at 37. Mrs. Curran testified that when she put her son to bed for the night, she put the light on in the bathroom across from his room, but cannot remember whether it was the vanity light or the light that is part of the fan/light fixture. Tr. at 38, 45. At some point later, Mrs. Curran was lying on the couch when the light on the porch, which is located on the floor below the bathroom, went out. Tr. at 46-47. About two minutes later, she was downstairs watching television with her daughter when she heard a "big bang." Tr. at 39. When Mrs. Curran was halfway upstairs, the smoke detector went off, and when she reached ...


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