Earlier this month, the Connecticut Supreme Court affirmed summary judgment in favor of an auto manufacturer holding that the plaintiff cannot save his claim by relying on an unspecified product defect under the “malfunction theory” of product liability.  In White v. Mazda Motor of America, Inc., et al., the plaintiff asserted a personal injury and property damage claim against the defendants after his Mazda3 caught fire one month after his purchase of the new vehicle.  The plaintiff alleged a specific defect in the design of the vehicle’s fuel system, but his only expert witness “declined to offer an opinion about whether the plaintiff’s vehicle was defective.” The trial court, therefore, granted defendants’ motion for summary judgment.

A malfunction claim must be pled and cannot be used as a fallback after a plaintiff’s claim of a specific defect fails. 

On appeal, plaintiff claimed he could prove his case by claiming the existence of some unspecified product defect under the malfunction theory of product liability.  The Appellate Court determined that the plaintiff had not raised the malfunction theory in trial court and thus did not preserve the issue for appellate review.  The Connecticut Supreme Court held that a malfunction claim must be pled and cannot be used as a fallback after a plaintiff’s claim of a specific defect fails.  Without pleading the facts necessary to support a malfunction claim, plaintiff did not put defendants on notice and as a result, “[n]either the defendants nor the court had any reason to believe that the plaintiff also was raising a malfunction theory claim.”

Because a product liability claim under the malfunction theory is distinct from an ordinary product liability claim, the court held that a plaintiff is required to “allege facts to put the trial court and the defendant on notice that the plaintiff intends to pursue his claim under this alternative burden of proof.” 

The Connecticut Supreme Court also reaffirmed that under a malfunction theory, the burden is on the plaintiff to exclude other possible causes of the accident.  Finally, the court found the plaintiff could not raise a malfunction theory merely by asserting he did not need to present expert testimony to prove proximate cause.  The malfunction theory is not an alternative to expert testimony and it is not proven simply by the expectations of the consumer.