No direct evidence of a specific product defect? No problem. The “malfunction theory” allows a plaintiff to establish the existence of a product defect with circumstantial evidence supporting an inference that an unspecified defect must have caused the accident because all other possible causes are absent. Solves the problem, right? Roland White thought so. Unfortunately for Mr. White, the Supreme Court of Connecticut disagreed, affirming summary judgment for the Defendants in White v. Mazda Motor of America, Inc., 2014 WL 4548058 (Conn. September 23, 2014). The problem for Mr. White, it turns out, was not the “malfunction theory” itself, but rather when Mr. White attempted to assert it.

Early in the morning in mid-November of 2006, Plaintiff Roland White was driving his new Mazda3 sedan home from his job working the night shift. After smelling gasoline, Plaintiff pulled over to the side of the road, where he opened the hood to examine the engine. Upon doing so, Plaintiff encountered a “slight explosion” and subsequent fire that caused him to fall backwards and allegedly injure his left knee. He sued Mazda Motor of America, Inc. and Cartwright Auto, LLC, alleging a number of reasons why his Mazda3 was defective. Plaintiff’s expert, Richard Morris, opined that a poorly designed fuel clip or gasket in or on the vehicle fuel line failed and caused the fire. However, Morris declined to offer an opinion about whether the vehicle was defective. Plaintiff presented no other evidence on the alleged product defect.

Following discovery, Defendants moved for summary judgment, arguing that Plaintiff did not produce evidence that the vehicle had a defect because his expert, Morris, declined to offer such an opinion and was not qualified to do so anyway. Defendants further argued that Plaintiff failed to produce sufficient evidence to establish that any alleged defect was the proximate cause of his knee injury. The trial court granted Defendants’ motion and Plaintiff appealed to the Appellate Court. On appeal, Plaintiff argued that he could prove his claims without expert testimony based on an unspecified defect under the “malfunction theory.” The Appellate Court, like the trial court, found that Plaintiff’s specific defect claims required expert testimony and that a failure to produce that testimony was fatal to his claims. The Court further found Plaintiff failed to raise the “malfunction theory” in the trial court.

Undeterred, Plaintiff sought and was granted certification to appeal two issues to the Supreme Court of Connecticut: (1) “Did the Appellate Court properly conclude that the Plaintiff had failed to raise the malfunction theory claim at trial?”; and (2) “If the answer to the first question is in the negative, did the Plaintiff present a prima facie case under the ‘malfunction theory’ of products liability?”. In affirming the Appellate Court, the Supreme Court was clear – the “malfunction theory” must be plead in the Complaint and failure to do so results in an inability of Plaintiff to rely on such a theory. According to the Supreme Court, to properly plead the “malfunction theory,” Plaintiff was required to claim in the pleadings that an unspecified defect caused his alleged injury and to allege facts that establish the “malfunction theory’s” two elements: “that (1) the incident that caused plaintiff’s harm was of a kind that ordinarily does not occur in the absence of a product defect and (2) any defect most likely existed at the time the product left the manufacturer’s or seller’s control and was not the result of the reasonably possible causes not attributable to the manufacturer or seller.” By waiting until his opposition to Defendants’ motion for summary judgment to raise this theory for the first time, Plaintiff deprived Defendants of the opportunity to conduct discovery on the claim. As such, the Supreme Court reasoned, such a theory could not save Plaintiff’s lack of direct evidence on product defect and summary judgment was proper.

Although Plaintiff White was unable to successfully avail himself of the benefits of the “malfunction theory” (i.e. lack of a burden to present direct evidence of a defect), the Supreme Court of Connecticut made clear that the “malfunction theory” remains alive and well in the constitution state, for those who properly plead it.