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Patricia M. Denny v. Bunn-O-Matic Corporation

February 14, 2011


The opinion of the court was delivered by: David N. Hurd United States District Judge



Plaintiff Patricia Denny ("plaintiff" or "Denny") brings this action against the defendant seeking compensation for damages she sustained when her Baldwinsville, New York, home was destroyed by fire on January 26, 2006. Plaintiff asserts that a coffee maker that was manufactured by defendant was defective, unreasonably dangerous, and caused the fire. The complaint was initially filed in the Supreme Court, Onondaga County, on June 23, 2008. On August 1, 2008, defendant removed the action to the district court pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1441. The court has jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1332.

The discovery process has ended, and defendant has moved for the following: (1) an order precluding the testimony of plaintiff's experts under Federal Rule of Evidence 702 and Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc., 509 U.S. 579, 113 S. Ct. 2786 (1993);

(2) spoliation sanctions for plaintiff's failure to preserve evidence; and (3) summary judgment pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56 dismissing the complaint in its entirety. Plaintiff opposes. Oral argument regarding the instant motion was held on February 11, 2011, in Utica, New York.


Plaintiff purchased the coffee maker at issue in late 2004 or early 2005. It is undisputed that the model coffee maker at issue was subject to two product recalls. The first recall was announced on June 10, 2005, and warned that the coffee maker posed a fire hazard. The second recall, dated July 25, 2006, expanded the first recall to include later-manufactured coffee makers of this particular model. It is believed that these recalls were prompted by 33 fires in which this model coffee maker was implicated.

On the morning of January 26, 2006, plaintiff, who lived alone, made coffee per her routine and left for work. At approximately 3:00p.m. that afternoon Denny was notified that there had been a fire at her house. It appears undisputed that the fire originated in the kitchen, in the area where the coffee maker sat on a counter. Denny maintains that the coffee maker was plugged directly into a wall outlet near the counter and was the only appliance plugged into that outlet.

Ronald Ryan, Onondaga County fire investigator, arrived at the fire scene approximately 45 minutes after the fire was reported. During his investigation he placed the remains of the coffee maker as well as the wall outlet and associated wiring in a plastic evidence bag. Ryan left this bag on the counter in the fire-damaged kitchen. Ryan denies disassembling or altering the coffee maker. Ryan noted that the home had "knob and tube" wiring that, although common in older construction, does not meet current electrical codes. Ryan concluded that the fire started in the area where the coffee maker was plugged into the wall outlet, but he was unable to definitively determine whether the coffee maker or the outlet and its wiring caused the fire.

The next day, January 27, 2006, Carl Dengel, a claim representative for State Farm Insurance Company ("State Farm"), plaintiff's insurance provider, responded to the scene and took possession of the plastic bag of evidence that had been left on the counter. Dengel locked the bag in the trunk of his car and then boarded-up the windows and doors of the house to preserve the scene.

Also on January 27, 2006, Gordon Ivory, a cause and origin investigator, was retained by State Farm to investigate the fire. On that date, Dengel gave Ivory the plastic bag containing the coffee maker, outlet, and wiring. Ivory claims that when he received the bag it was "semi-sealed"-meaning it was "rolled up" with evidence tape on the outside of the bag but not covering the opening. Ivory placed this bag in a storage facility at his lab. Ivory performed a physical inspection of the fire scene on January 28, 2006, removed a wall switch and its wiring from the kitchen, and utilized a hydrocarbon detector. Ivory denies altering the physical evidence in any way and transferred the evidence to James

Hahn on February 3, 2006. Ivory concluded that the fire was caused by the subject coffee maker.

James Hahn, a forensic electrical engineer retained by State Farm, conducted an examination of the physical evidence over the course of several days in February 2006, during which he used a temperature meter. Hahn denies "disassembling" the coffee maker but acknowledges "pulling back" the covers of two internal wires. Hahn claims that these internal wires were disconnected from the coffee maker when he received the evidence. Hahn released an initial report on June 5, 2006, which concluded that the coffee maker's internal wires had arced at points referred to as "3X" and "5X" and caused the ignition of the fire. On April 19, 2010, after conducting additional tests and receiving new information, Hahn provided a supplemental report indicating that an arc at point "2X" could also have ignited the fire.

On April 24, 2006, John Edie, Vice President of quality assurance for defendant, and Nathan Dwyer, an investigator retained by defendant, examined the scene and the physical evidence. Both concluded that the coffee maker was not defective, did not exhibit a failure similar to the reason for the product recalls, and did not cause this fire.


Defendant argues that plaintiff's claim should be dismissed because: (1) plaintiff cannot establish that the coffee maker was defective or caused the fire; (2) plaintiff's representatives altered the physical evidence and failed to preserve the scene; and (3) plaintiff's experts are unreliable and their testimony should be precluded.*fn1 Since plaintiff's ability to establish a prima facie case ...

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