An Illinois appeals panel has overturned a Cook County jury’s $10.7 million verdict against a water heater manufacturer, which found the company was liable for a baby’s scalding death, saying the trial judge improperly excluded evidence that would have aided the manufacturer’s defense.
The Dec. 7 ruling was penned by Justice Maureen Connors, with concurrence from Presiding Justice Mathias Delort and Justice Sheldon Harris, of Illinois First District Appellate Court in Chicago. The ruling was filed under Supreme Court Rule 23, which means it may not be cited as precedent except in the circumstances allowed by the rule.
On Feb. 24, 2010, one-year-old Mikayla King was scalded by bathtub water. She underwent 19 surgeries, before dying seven weeks later. In 2011, the administrator of the child’s estate lodged a suit in Cook County Circuit Court against American Water Heater Company, which made the home’s water heater in 2005. The company is based in Johnson City, Tenn.
The suit alleged the appliance was defectively designed, which let water be warmed beyond 125 degrees, the temperature at which dangerous burns can occur. The girl was scalded by water estimated between 138 and 155 degrees, according to court papers.
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The company countered its product heated water to temperatures within its stated specifications, and the heater’s design met all codes and industry standards. Further, the company said there was no evidence the heater was broken or otherwise not working in accordance with its design. In addition, the company said the heater’s thermostat was set at 155 degrees at the time of the scalding, with 160 degrees the hottest setting possible.
A jury ruled American Water Heater was at fault, prompting the company to appeal.
The company persuaded Justice Connors that Associate Judge James Snyder made improper rulings on evidence admissibility during trial.
Connors found Snyder was wrong to have excluded the heater’s manual and warning labels on grounds the suit was about defective design, not a failure to warn. However, Connors said these items of evidence were pertinent to the company’s contention danger was present with the water heater, but not unduly so, and applied to the issue of the heater’s risk versus its utility.
“Its rulings barring evidence of the water heater’s warning label, broadly prohibited defendant from introducing relevant evidence about the water heater in question, especially when the evidence was necessary in applying the risk-utility test,” Connors said of Snyder’s decisions.
Snyder also denied the company’s request to submit a question to the jury for its deliberation, asking, “Was the water heater designed and manufactured by American Water Heater Company in 2005 unreasonably dangerous when it left its control?”
Connors noted the purpose of such a “special interrogatory” is to test the verdict for consistency. Snyder barred the question, because he found it was not a stated element of the jury instruction regarding the burden of proof plaintiff needed to meet.
Connors reasoned otherwise, saying a special interrogatory must relate to an “ultimate issue of fact,” which the company’s question did, in that it asked whether the heater was “unreasonably dangerous” when it left the company’s hands.
In light of Snyder’s wrong rulings, the company deserves a new trial, Connors concluded.
Plaintiff has been represented by Chicago lawyer Jay P. Deratany.
Defendant has been represented by the Chicago firm of Mayer Brown.