Chicago, Client Results, Firm News, Notable Cases, Product Liability

Michigan Appellate Court Affirms Summary Judgment Snuffing Out Plaintiff's $50M Product Liability Demand in Rooftop Blaze

March 3, 2023

Johnson & Bell Shareholder, Charles P. Rantis, and Plunkett Cooney Partners, Matthew J. Stanczyk and Jeffrey C. Gerish, obtained dismissal of a catastrophic injury, product liability dispute in Michigan. The defendants in the case are long-time clients of Johnson & Bell.  Mr. Rantis handled all the depositions in the dispute and collaborated with Mr. Stanczyk on strategy.  Together, Messrs. Rantis and Stanczyk obtained summary judgment for their clients in the Eastern District of Michigan, Southern Division. Mr. Gerish handled the appeal before the Sixth Circuit. 

In this case, plaintiff suffered severe burns due to a generator fire on the roof of his residence in Michigan. After power went out in his residential building, plaintiff tried to start the generator on the building’s roof.  He could not get the generator started and removed the gas cap and tilted the generator to see if it had gas. While tilting the generator, gas poured from the tank and an explosion occurred. Plaintiff’s pants caught fire and he suffered second and third degree burns on 20 percent of his body.  Plaintiff underwent multiple skin-graft surgeries and has ongoing physical and emotional pain and difficulties resulting from the incident.  Plaintiff sued several companies for negligence, gross negligence, strict liability and breach of implied warranty.  The defense team represented two of the defendants, the manufacturer of the generator and its parent company.  Plaintiff’s initial settlement demand was $50 million.

Defense argued that plaintiff was aware of the hazards of gasoline and that he reviewed the generator’s operator’s manual and the on-product decals and instruction prior to the incident.  However, plaintiff was significantly impaired when he tried to start the generator.  In fact, the defense team’s medical toxicologist expert calculated that plaintiff’s blood alcohol level was an average of 0.106 at the time of the accident.  Plaintiff was also found to have cannabinoids, cocaine and opiates in his system at the time of the accident. The defense team had the generator in question evaluated by a mechanical engineer and certified fire and explosion investigator who concluded that plaintiff’s conduct caused the gas spill and fire, not the generator’s design.  The district court granted summary judgment in favor of defendants on impairment and unforeseeable misuse (the tilting of the generator), finding that plaintiff failed to present arguments or evidence sufficient to create a genuine issue of material fact.

On appeal, plaintiff challenged both grounds of the district court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of the defendants.  On the issue of unforeseeable misuse, the appellate court accepted the district court’s characterization and assumed plaintiff misused the generator by tipping it while the cap was off and by operating it while impaired.  On the issue of impairment, the appellate court concluded that the plaintiff never presented any evidence proving he was not impaired.  By contrast, defendants’ expert concluded the accident was entirely preventable had the plaintiff not used the generator while impaired.  The appellate court affirmed the lower court’s summary judgment dismissal.

Johnson & Bell and Plunkett Cooney are members of the law firm network, ALFA International.  Johnson & Bell is the exclusive Chicago and northern Illinois member of ALFA International. Plunkett Cooney is the exclusive Detroit member.  As a member, we have involved other ALFA member firms in the execution of our clients’ business objectives — across the U.S. and globally.  This is the most recent example of how the ALFA International network benefits our clients.


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