In a published opinion, the Appellate Division of the New Jersey Superior Court held that a plaintiff need not present expert evidence to establish a prima facie case of breach of express warranty. Instead, a plaintiff simply must present evidence of non-performance in order to shift to defendants the burden of proving that the failure of the product was not caused by a defect. Though raised in a case of modest origins, the future impact of this holding on more complex actions is difficult to predict.
In Ford Motor Credit Co., LLC d/b/a Jaguar Credit v. Mendola, the vehicle purchaser alleged that her engine seized due to a defect, causing substantial damages. She asserted claims against the manufacturer and seller for negligence and breach of warranty. Defendants responded that the damage was the result of plaintiff’s misuse and improper maintenance of the vehicle. At the close of discovery, the trial court granted summary judgment for defendants based on the purchaser’s failure to produce an expert report substantiating the existence of a defect.
The Appellate Division affirmed the trial court’s ruling with respect to the tort claims. Confirming once again that motor vehicles are complex instrumentalities, the appellate court found that, without an expert report, “allowing a jury to determine liability based on a negligence claim would require impermissible speculation as to causation, and hence, negligence.” The court further affirmed the dismissal of these claims under the New Jersey Product Liability Act (PLA), which precludes tort claims for harm caused to the product itself, or for consequential economic losses caused by a defective product.
The court reached a different conclusion, however, with respect to the contract-based express warranty claim. Although expert evidence is required to prove the existence of a defect, the court held that an express warranty claim does not require the existence of a defect. Instead, “a prima facie case of express warranty only requires evidence of non-performance by the warrantor.” The court added that “mere failure of promised performance” is enough to establish the causation element of a breach of express warranty claim.
Appearing to depart from the language of the contract, the court observed that manufacturers and sellers are in a better position both to detect the cause of failed performance and to pass the costs of such detection on to consumers. As a result, the court concluded, “it is fair and reasonable that the manufacturer or seller bear the burden of proving that . . . the failure of the vehicle was unrelated to the terms of the express warranty.” Moreover, despite finding that the purchaser enjoyed a lighter burden in establishing a prima facie claim of breach, the court determined that defendants’ claim of misuse required expert evidence.
While effective use of contract language may help to mitigate the impact of this holding in future cases, it is clear that defendants in breach of warranty actions must be prepared to offer expert evidence to disprove causation even where plaintiffs have proffered no expert evidence in support of an alleged defect.