Pelton V. Maytag: Ontario Court Clarifies The Duty To Warn Of Remote Risks And Frailties Of Delayed Testing In Product Liability Claims

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In Pelton v. Maytag, the Ontario Superior Court of Justice dismissed a plaintiff's product liability claims grounded in failure to warn and negligent manufacture.
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In Pelton v. Maytag1, the Ontario Superior Court of Justice dismissed a plaintiff's product liability claims grounded in failure to warn and negligent manufacture. The Court's decision clarifies the scope of a manufacturer's duty to warn of unlikely or remote risks and provides insight into the evidentiary requirements for claims of manufacturing negligence.

What you need to know

  • No duty to warn of remote or unforeseeable risks.  The Court confirmed that manufacturers have a duty to warn of probable and foreseeable risks; however, there is no duty to warn of remote or merely possible risks or dangers. Even where the alleged risks are generally known to the manufacturer, there is no duty to warn if the risks arise only from plaintiff-specific facts and circumstances unknown to the defendant.
  • Reliable evidence is required to establish manufacturing defect claims. Plaintiffs alleging a manufacturing defect must prove its existence with reliable evidence. Testing to establish a defect may not be persuasive where it cannot be reliably connected to the affected product (e.g., where there is a significant delay or intervening events between the incident and the testing, or where the products used in testing are much newer).

Background

While the plaintiff was on vacation in January 2014, a valve in his ten-year-old dishwasher failed, causing extensive flooding and damage to his home. The defendants (the manufacturers of the dishwasher and the valve, respectively) argued that the valve failure was unforeseeable as it arose due to a freezing event. The plaintiff alleged that the valve had been negligently manufactured and failed under ordinary use, and that the defendants had failed to warn of the potential risk of failure due to freezing.

No duty to warn of remote or unforeseeable risks

The defendants' “freeze event” defence asserted that the valve failed due to a confluence of case-specific factors: (1) the dishwasher was installed in an exterior wall; (2) the valve was attached to a copper pipe; and (3) the house was empty for an extended period, during which external temperatures were below freezing. In response, the plaintiff argued that the dishwasher owner manual and installation guide contained no warnings about freeze events or what a consumer should do to avoid related water leaks, and that had he been made aware of those risks, he would have taken precautions to avoid water damage.

The Court rejected the plaintiff's “failure to warn” argument on the basis that the defendants had no duty to warn of the remote risk of valve failure due to a freezing event that was “rooted in specific facts and circumstances” unknowable to the defendants2.

In the remoteness analysis, the Court considered the number of valves manufactured each year (10 million) and reported failure rates of all types (10 to 20, or 1 to 2 in 10,000). Although the plaintiff argued that additional failures might not have been reported to the manufacturer, the Court found there was no evidence to support that speculation.

The Court concluded that the risk of valve failure due to a freeze event was remote. Although the director of risk engineering for the valve manufacturer testified that he knew that the valves would crack and burst when attached to a frozen copper pipe, the Court concluded that the defendants could not have known that the valve was the “weakest link” in the plaintiff's plumbing system, nor that it would fail due to the confluence of factors noted above.

Manufacturing defect claims require reliable evidence

The plaintiff's main argument was that the defendants were liable for manufacturing a defective product because the plastic used to make the valve had a propensity to degrade and burst under normal service conditions.

To prove a manufacturing defect, the plaintiff relied on burst testing that compared exemplar valves, which did not crack under the testing conditions, to the incident valve, which contained cracks and a rough, fractured surface. The plaintiff's expert argued that the state of the incident valve indicated plastic degradation rather than damage due to a freeze event.

The Court held this evidence was problematic and insufficient to establish a manufacturing defect on a balance of probabilities. It found that the exemplar valves purchased in 2022 were not a good comparator for the then 18-year-old incident valve, which had operated properly for ten years prior to the incident, and then had been stored for eight years (after the flood prior to the testing).

Implications

The Superior Court's decision confirms that a manufacturer's duty to warn of risks is commensurate with their likelihood: where a known risk is rare, and its occurrence depends on specific circumstances, it is less likely the manufacturer will have a duty to warn of that risk.

The decision also confirms that plaintiffs must establish the existence of a manufacturing defect on a balance of probabilities using reliable evidence. Where this evidence includes testing the incident product and exemplar comparator products, delays and intervening actions prior to conducting the testing—as well as significant differences between the incident and comparator products—may undermine the reliability of the testing results.

Footnotes

1. 2024 ONSC 3016.

2. Ibid, para. 48.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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