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Reichmann v. Whirlpool Corp.

United States District Court, E.D. New York

January 14, 2020




         This is a personal injury case commenced by Plaintiff, Rivka Reichmann (“Plaintiff” or “Reichmann”), against Defendants, Whirlpool Corporation and KitchenAid, Inc. (collectively “Whirlpool”).[1] Plaintiff is a consumer who purchased and used Whirlpool's refrigerator-freezer (the “Appliance”). She claims injury following her fall on a puddle of water caused by a defect in the Appliance. Presently before the Court is Defendant's motion for summary judgment. See Docket Entry herein (“DE”) [39]. For the reasons set forth below, the motion is denied.


         I. Basis of Facts Recited Herein

         In support of their motion, Defendants have properly filed a statement of facts in accord with Rule 56.1 of the Local Rules of the United States District Courts for the Southern and Eastern Districts of New York (“Rule 56.1”). Plaintiff has also properly filed her Rule 56.1 Statement. The facts set forth below are drawn from the parties' statements. Unless otherwise indicated, the facts are agreed upon.

         II. Factual Background

         A. Whirlpool and the Product at Issue

         Whirlpool designs and manufactures home appliances, including combination refrigerator-freezers. Defendants' Rule 56.1 Statement (DE [48]) at ¶ 1.[2] Whirlpool sells its refrigerator-freezers, such as the Appliance, to trade customers who then sell them to consumers. Id. at ¶ 2.

         B. Operation of the Freezer Compartment in the Appliance

         The freezer compartment of the Appliance is positioned below the refrigerator portion. Id. That freezer is a “no-frost” freezer, which automatically defrosts so that a consumer does not need to periodically unplug the freezer to get rid of built-up frost. Id. at ¶ 8. In no-frost freezers, melted frost, called “condensate” is drained outside of the freezer compartment, typically through a tube or funnel at the bottom of the freezer compartment. Id. at ¶ 10.

         C. Issues Surrounding the Use of Duckbill Valves

         In or around 2010, Whirlpool began using “duckbill-style” valves as part of a drain system to help drain condensate from the freezer compartment in certain bottom-mount combination refrigerator-freezers. After receiving consumer complaints of excess frost buildup, Whirlpool added duckbill valves to the drain process to limit the amount of airflow from the refrigerator-freezer's machine compartment (i.e., where the mechanical components of the unit are located) into the freezer compartment, thereby reducing frost accumulation in the freezer compartment. Id. at ¶ 11. The Appliance was one of the Whirlpool bottom-mount refrigerator-freezers that utilized a duckbill valve. Id. at ¶ 12.

         By 2011, Whirlpool became aware that due to the short length of the duckbill valves, water passing through those valves would occasionally freeze, which would clog the drain valve. That clogging would reduce the ability of condensate to drain from the freezer compartment, and could allow a layer of ice to form at the bottom of the freezer compartment. If that layer of ice was allowed to grow, the condensate water could then exit the bottom of the refrigerator and leak onto the floor underneath and around the refrigerator. Id. at ¶ 13.[3] Plaintiff takes issue with Defendants' characterization of where the water leaking from a freezer would go. It is obvious that such water would first leak underneath the refrigerator (as Defendants' state) and eventually to the area of the floor surrounding the refrigerator (as Plaintiff states).

         To prevent water from freezing in the short duckbill valves originally used, in or around 2011, Whirlpool began using longer duckbill valves in its bottom-mount refrigerator freezers. Id. at ¶ 14. In or around 2012, Whirlpool began to notice that some of the long duckbill valves were also causing drainage problems, which also resulted in leaking. Id. at ¶ 15. Thereafter, Whirlpool investigated potential solutions for the clogged duckbill valves. Id. at ¶ 18.

         Ultimately, Whirlpool implemented the use of “p trap” valves instead of duckbill valves. Id. Whirlpool also implemented a p-trap service solution for consumers who had refrigerator-freezers with duckbill valves. In August and November of 2013, Whirlpool issued “Technical Service Pointers” (which are communications from Whirlpool to technicians regarding the proper way to diagnose and repair products in the field) on the subject of clogged duckbills. Technical Service Pointers issued in August and November 2013 instructed service technicians to replace duckbill valves with p-trap valves. Id. at ¶ 20-21. Whirlpool fielded thousands of service calls arising from clogged duckbill valves. Id. at ¶ 23.

         D. Claims Arising out of Clogged Duckbill Valves

         Whirlpool has produced a list of claims and lawsuits brought prior to Plaintiff's July 10, 2015 injury with allegations of leaking water from all refrigerator-freezers with duckbill valves. The list contains 532 matters. Of these matters, all were for property damage. None were for personal injury, and prior to Plaintiff's claim there were no slip and fall claims made to Whirlpool as a result of water exiting a refrigerator as a result of a clogged duckbill. Id. at ¶ 24.

         Plaintiff takes issue with Defendants' characterization of prior lawsuits. It is Plaintiff's position that Whirlpool has, indeed, been sued for personal injuries caused by leaks from refrigerators. In support of this allegation, Plaintiff refers to the case of Deeds v. Whirlpool, S.D. Texas, No. H:15-cv-2208. Id. at ¶ 41. Plaintiff also states that Whirlpool's representation regarding lawsuits refers only to those commenced prior to Plaintiff's lawsuit, and that it has not produced documents regarding actions filed after Plaintiff's lawsuit. Id. Plaintiff further states that Whirlpool's records document a concern of slip and fall injury caused by clogged duckbills. Id. at ¶ 42.

         E. Plaintiff's Purchase of the ...

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