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20.6 Cases

Implied Warranty of Merchantability and the Requirement of a “Sale”

Sheeskin v. Giant Food, Inc.

318 A.2d 874 (Md. App. 1974)

Davidson, J.

Every Friday for over two years Nathan Seigel, age 73, shopped with his wife at a Giant Food Store. This complex products liability case is before us because on one of these Fridays, 23 October 1970, Mr. Seigel was carrying a six-pack carton of Coca-Cola from a display bin at the Giant to a shopping cart when one or more of the bottles exploded. Mr. Seigel lost his footing, fell to the floor and was injured.

In the Circuit Court for Montgomery County, Mr. Seigel sued both the Giant Food, Inc., and the Washington Coca-Cola Bottling Company, Inc., for damages resulting from their alleged negligence and breach of an implied warranty. At the conclusion of the trial Judge Walter H. Moorman directed a verdict in favor of each defendant.…

In an action based on breach of warranty it is necessary for the plaintiff to show the existence of the warranty, the fact that the warranty was broken and that the breach of warranty was the proximate cause of the loss sustained. [UCC] 2-314.…The retailer, Giant Food, Inc., contends that appellant failed to prove that an implied warranty existed between himself and the retailer because he failed to prove that there was a sale by the retailer to him or a contract of sale between the two. The retailer maintains that there was no sale or contract of sale because at the time the bottles exploded Mr. Seigel had not yet paid for them. We do not agree.

[UCC] 2-314(1) states in pertinent part:

Unless excluded or modified, a warranty that the goods shall be merchantable is implied in a contract for their sale if the seller is a merchant with respect to goods of that kind.Uniform Commercial Code, Section 2-316. (emphasis added)

Thus, in order for the implied warranties of 2-314 to be applicable there must be a “contract for sale.” In Maryland it has been recognized that neither a completed ‘sale’ nor a fully executed contract for sale is required. It is enough that there be in existence an executory contract for sale.…

Here, the plaintiff has the burden of showing the existence of the warranty by establishing that at the time the bottles exploded there was a contract for their sale existing between himself and the Giant. [Citation] Mr. Titus, the manager of the Giant, testified that the retailer is a “self-service” store in which “the only way a customer can buy anything is to select it himself and take it to the checkout counter.” He stated that there are occasions when a customer may select an item in the store and then change his mind and put the item back. There was no evidence to show that the retailer ever refused to sell an item to a customer once it had been selected by him or that the retailer did not consider himself bound to sell an item to the customer after the item had been selected. Finally, Mr. Titus said that an employee of Giant placed the six-pack of Coca-Cola selected by Mr. Seigel on the shelf with the purchase price already stamped upon it. Mr. Seigel testified that he picked up the six-pack with the intent to purchase it.

We think that there is sufficient evidence to show that the retailer’s act of placing the bottles upon the shelf with the price stamped upon the six-pack in which they were contained manifested an intent to offer them for sale, the terms of the offer being that it would pass title to the goods when Mr. Seigel presented them at the check-out counter and paid the stated price in cash. We also think that the evidence is sufficient to show that Mr. Seigel’s act of taking physical possession of the goods with the intent to purchase them manifested an intent to accept the offer and a promise to take them to the checkout counter and pay for them there.

[UCC] 2-206 provides in pertinent part:

(1) Unless otherwise unambiguously indicated by the language or circumstances

(a) An offer to make a contract shall be construed as inviting acceptance in any manner and by any medium reasonable in the circumstances.…

The Official Comment 1 to this section states:

Any reasonable manner of acceptance is intended to be regarded as available unless the offeror has made quite clear that it will not be acceptable.

In our view the manner by which acceptance was to be accomplished in the transaction herein involved was not indicated by either language or circumstances. The seller did not make it clear that acceptance could not be accomplished by a promise rather than an act. Thus it is equally reasonable under the terms of this specific offer that acceptance could be accomplished in any of three ways: 1) by the act of delivering the goods to the check-out counter and paying for them; 2) by the promise to pay for the goods as evidenced by their physical delivery to the check-out counter; and 3) by the promise to deliver the goods to the check-out counter and to pay for them there as evidenced by taking physical possession of the goods by their removal from the shelf.

The fact that customers, having once selected goods with the intent to purchase them, are permitted by the seller to return them to the shelves does not preclude the possibility that a selection of the goods, as evidenced by taking physical possession of them, could constitute a reasonable mode of acceptance. Section 2-106(3) provides:

“Termination” occurs when either party pursuant to a power created by agreement or law puts an end to the contract otherwise then for its breach. On “termination” all obligations which are still executory on both sides are discharged but any right based on prior breach or performance survives.

Here the evidence that the retailer permits the customer to “change his mind” indicates only an agreement between the parties to permit the consumer to end his contract with the retailer irrespective of a breach of the agreement by the retailer. It does not indicate that an agreement does not exist prior to the exercise of this option by the consumer.…

Here Mr. Seigel testified that all of the circumstances surrounding his selection of the bottles were normal; that the carton in which the bottles came was not defective; that in lifting the carton from the shelf and moving it toward his basket the bottles neither touched nor were touched by anything other than his hand; that they exploded almost instantaneously after he removed them from the shelf; and that as a result of the explosion he fell injuring himself. It is obvious that Coca-Cola bottles which would break under normal handling are not fit for the ordinary use for which they were intended and that the relinquishment of physical control of such a defective bottle to a consumer constitutes a breach of warranty. Thus the evidence was sufficient to show that when the bottles left the retailer’s control they did not conform to the representations of the warranty of merchantability, and that this breach of the warranty was the cause of the loss sustained.…

[Judgment in favor of Giant Foods is reversed and the case remanded for a new trial. Judgment in favor of the bottler is affirmed because the plaintiff failed to prove that the bottles were defective when they were delivered to the retailer.]

Case Questions

  1. What warranty did the plaintiff complain was breached here?
  2. By displaying the soda pop, the store made an offer to its customers. How did the court say such offers might be accepted?
  3. Why did the court get into the discussion about “termination” of the contract?
  4. What is the controlling rule of law applied in this case?

Strict Liability and Bystanders

Embs v. Pepsi-Cola Bottling Co. of Lexington, Kentucky, Inc.

528 S.W.2d 703 (Ky. 1975)

Jukowsky, J.

On the afternoon of July 25, 1970 plaintiff-appellant entered the self-service retail store operated by the defendant-appellee, Stamper’s Cash Market, Inc., for the purpose of “buying soft drinks for the kids.” She went to an upright soft drink cooler, removed five bottles and placed them in a carton. Unnoticed by her, a carton of Seven-Up was sitting on the floor at the edge of the produce counter about one foot from where she was standing. As she turned away from the cooler she heard an explosion that sounded “like a shotgun.” When she looked down she saw a gash in her leg, pop on her leg, green pieces of a bottle on the floor and the Seven-Up carton in the midst of the debris. She did not kick or otherwise come into contact with the carton of Seven-Up prior to the explosion. Her son, who was with her, recognized the green pieces of glass as part of a Seven-Up bottle.

She was immediately taken to the hospital by Mrs. Stamper, a managing agent of the store. Mrs. Stamper told her that a Seven-Up bottle had exploded and that several bottles had exploded that week. Before leaving the store Mrs. Stamper instructed one of her children to clean up the mess. Apparently, all of the physical evidence went out with the trash. The location of the Seven-Up carton immediately before the explosion was not a place where such items were ordinarily kept.…

When she rested her case, the defendants-appellees moved for a directed verdict in their favor. The trial court granted the motion on the grounds that the doctrine of strict product liability in tort does not extend beyond users and consumers and that the evidence was insufficient to permit an inference by a reasonably prudent man that the bottle was defective or if it was, when it became so.

In [Citation] we adopted the view of strict product liability in tort expressed in Section 402 A of the American Law Institute’s Restatement of Torts 2d.

402 A. Special Liability of Seller of Product for Physical Harm to User or Consumer

(1) One who sells any product in a defective condition unreasonably dangerous to the user or to his property is subject to liability for physical harm thereby caused to the ultimate user or consumer, or to his property, if

(a) the seller is engaged in the business of selling such a product, and

(b) it is expected to and does reach the user or consumer without substantial change in the condition in which it was sold.

(2) The rule stated in Subsection (1) applies although

(a) the seller has exercised all possible care in the preparation and sale of his product, and

(b) the user or consumer has not bought the product from or entered into any contractual relation with the seller.

Comment f on that section makes it abundantly clear that this rule applies to any person engaged in the business of supplying products for use or consumption, including any manufacturer of such a product and any wholesale or retail dealer or distributor.

Comment c points out that on whatever theory, the justification for the rule has been said to be that the seller, by marketing his product for use and consumption, has undertaken and assumed a special responsibility toward any member of the consuming public who may be injured by it; that the public has the right to and does expect that reputable sellers will stand behind their goods; that public policy demands that the burden of accidental injuries caused by products intended for consumption be placed upon those who market them, and be treated as a cost of production against which liability insurance can be obtained; and that the consumer of such products is entitled to the maximum of protection at the hands of someone, and the proper persons to afford it are those who market the products.

The caveat to the section provides that the Institute expresses no opinion as to whether the rule may not apply to harm to persons other than users or consumers. Comment on caveat o states the Institute expresses neither approval nor disapproval of expansion of the rule to permit recovery by casual bystanders and others who may come in contact with the product, and admits there may be no essential reason why such plaintiffs should not be brought within the scope of protection afforded, other than they do not have the same reasons for expecting such protection as the consumer who buys a marketed product, and that the social pressure which has been largely responsible for the development of the rule has been a consumer’s pressure, and there is not the same demand for the protection of casual strangers.…

The caveat articulates the essential point: Once strict liability is accepted, bystander recovery is fait accompli.

Our expressed public policy will be furthered if we minimize the risk of personal injury and property damage by charging the costs of injuries against the manufacturer who can procure liability insurance and distribute its expense among the public as a cost of doing business; and since the risk of harm from defective products exists for mere bystanders and passersby as well as for the purchaser or user, there is no substantial reason for protecting one class of persons and not the other. The same policy requires us to maximize protection for the injured third party and promote the public interest in discouraging the marketing of products having defects that are a menace to the public by imposing strict liability upon retailers and wholesalers in the distributive chain responsible for marketing the defective product which injures the bystander. The imposition of strict liability places no unreasonable burden upon sellers because they can adjust the cost of insurance protection among themselves in the course of their continuing business relationship.

We must not shirk from extending the rule to the manufacturer for fear that the retailer or middleman will be impaled on the sword of liability without regard to fault. Their liability was already established under Section 402 A of the Restatement of Torts 2d. As a matter of public policy the retailer or middleman as well as the manufacturer should be liable since the loss for injuries resulting from defective products should be placed on those members of the marketing chain best able to pay the loss, who can then distribute such risk among themselves by means of insurance and indemnity agreements. [Citation]…

The result which we reach does not give the bystander a “free ride.” When products and consumers are considered in the aggregate, bystanders, as a class, purchase most of the same products to which they are exposed as bystanders. Thus, as a class, they indirectly subsidize the liability of the manufacturer, middleman and retailer and in this sense do pay for the insurance policy tied to the product.…

For the sake of clarity we restate the extension of the rule. The protections of Section 402 A of the Restatement of Torts 2d extend to bystanders whose injury from the defective product is reasonably foreseeable.…

The judgment is reversed and the cause is remanded to the Clark Circuit Court for further proceedings consistent herewith.

Stephenson, J. (dissenting):

I respectfully dissent from the majority opinion to the extent that it subjects the seller to liability. Every rule of law in my mind should have a rational basis. I see none here.

Liability of the seller to the user, or consumer, is based upon warranty. Restatement, Second, Torts s 403A. To extend this liability to injuries suffered by a bystander is to depart from any reasonable basis and impose liability by judicial fiat upon an otherwise innocent defendant. I do not believe that the expression in the majority opinion which justifies this rule for the reason that the seller may procure liability insurance protection is a valid legal basis for imposing liability without fault. I respectfully dissent.

Case Questions

  1. Why didn’t the plaintiff here use warranty as a theory of recovery, as Mr. Seigel did in the previous case?
  2. The court offers a rationale for the doctrine of strict products liability. What is it?
  3. Restatement, Section 402A, by its terms extends protection “to the ultimate user or consumer,” but Mrs. Embs [plaintiff-appellant] was not that. What rationale did the court give for expanding the protection here?
  4. Among the entities in the vertical distribution chain—manufacturer, wholesaler, retailer—who is liable under this doctrine?
  5. What argument did Judge Stephenson have in dissent? Is it a good one?
  6. What is the controlling rule of law developed in this case?

Failure to Warn

Laaperi v. Sears, Roebuck & Co., Inc.

787 F.2d 726 C.A.1 (Mass. 1986)

Campbell, J.

In March 1976, plaintiff Albin Laaperi purchased a smoke detector from Sears. The detector, manufactured by the Pittway Corporation, was designed to be powered by AC (electrical) current. Laaperi installed the detector himself in one of the two upstairs bedrooms in his home.

Early in the morning of December 27, 1976, a fire broke out in the Laaperi home. The three boys in one of the upstairs bedrooms were killed in the blaze. Laaperi’s 13-year-old daughter Janet, who was sleeping in the other upstairs bedroom, received burns over 12 percent of her body and was hospitalized for three weeks.

The uncontroverted testimony at trial was that the smoke detector did not sound an alarm on the night of the fire. The cause of the fire was later found to be a short circuit in an electrical cord that was located in a cedar closet in the boys’ bedroom. The Laaperi home had two separate electrical circuits in the upstairs bedrooms: one which provided electricity to the outlets and one which powered the lighting fixtures. The smoke detector had been connected to the outlet circuit, which was the circuit that shorted and cut off. Because the circuit was shorted, the AC-operated smoke detector received no power on the night of the fire. Therefore, although the detector itself was in no sense defective (indeed, after the fire the charred detector was tested and found to be operable), no alarm sounded.

Laaperi brought this diversity action against defendants Sears and Pittway, asserting negligent design, negligent manufacture, breach of warranty, and negligent failure to warn of inherent dangers. The parties agreed that the applicable law is that of Massachusetts. Before the claims went to the jury, verdicts were directed in favor of defendants on all theories of liability other than failure to warn.…

Laaperi’s claim under the failure to warn theory was that he was unaware of the danger that the very short circuit which might ignite a fire in his home could, at the same time, incapacitate the smoke detector. He contended that had he been warned of this danger, he would have purchased a battery-powered smoke detector as a back-up or taken some other precaution, such as wiring the detector to a circuit of its own, in order better to protect his family in the event of an electrical fire.

The jury returned verdicts in favor of Laaperi in all four actions on the failure to warn claim. The jury assessed damages in the amount of $350,000 [$1,050,000, or about $3,400,000 in 2010 dollars] each of the three actions brought on behalf of the deceased sons, and $750,000 [about $2,500,000 in 2010 dollars] in the action brought on behalf of Janet Laaperi. The defendants’ motions for directed verdict and judgment notwithstanding the verdict were denied, and defendants appealed.

Defendants ask us to declare that the risk that an electrical fire could incapacitate an AC-powered smoke detector is so obvious that the average consumer would not benefit from a warning. This is not a trivial argument; in earlier—some might say sounder—days, we might have accepted it.… Our sense of the current state of the tort law in Massachusetts and most other jurisdictions, however, leads us to conclude that, today, the matter before us poses a jury question; that “obviousness” in a situation such as this would be treated by the Massachusetts courts as presenting a question of fact, not of law. To be sure, it would be obvious to anyone that an electrical outage would cause this smoke detector to fail. But the average purchaser might not comprehend the specific danger that a fire-causing electrical problem can simultaneously knock out the circuit into which a smoke detector is wired, causing the detector to fail at the very moment it is needed. Thus, while the failure of a detector to function as the result of an electrical malfunction due, say, to a broken power line or a neighborhood power outage would, we think, be obvious as a matter of law, the failure that occurred here, being associated with the very risk—fire—for which the device was purchased, was not, or so a jury could find.…

Finally, defendants contend that the award of $750,000 [$2.5 million in 2010 dollars] in damages to Janet Laaperi was excessive, and should have been overturned by the district court.…

Janet Laaperi testified that on the night of the fire, she woke up and smelled smoke. She woke her friend who was sleeping in her room, and they climbed out to the icy roof of the house. Her father grabbed her from the roof and took her down a ladder. She was taken to the hospital. Although she was in “mild distress,” she was found to be “alert, awake, [and] cooperative.” Her chest was clear. She was diagnosed as having first and second degree burns of her right calf, both buttocks and heels, and her left lower back, or approximately 12 percent of her total body area. She also suffered from a burn of her tracheobronchial mucosa (i.e., the lining of her airway) due to smoke inhalation, and multiple superficial lacerations on her right hand.

The jury undoubtedly, and understandably, felt a great deal of sympathy for a young girl who, at the age of 13, lost three brothers in a tragic fire. But by law the jury was only permitted to compensate her for those damages associated with her own injuries. Her injuries included fright and pain at the time of and after the fire, a three-week hospital stay, some minor discomfort for several weeks after discharge, and a permanent scar on her lower back. Plaintiff has pointed to no cases, and we have discovered none, in which such a large verdict was sustained for such relatively minor injuries, involving no continuing disability.

The judgments in favor of Albin Laaperi in his capacity as administrator of the estates of his three sons are affirmed. In the action on behalf of Janet Laaperi, the verdict of the jury is set aside, the judgment of the district court vacated, and the cause remanded to that court for a new trial limited to the issue of damages.

Case Questions

  1. The “C.A. 1” under the title of the case means it is a US Court of Appeals case from the First Circuit in Massachusetts. Why is this case in federal court?
  2. Why does the court talk about its “sense of the current state of tort law in Massachusetts” and how this case “would be treated by the Massachusetts courts,” as if it were not in the state at all but somehow outside?
  3. What rule of law is in play here as to the defendants’ liability?
  4. This is a tragic case—three boys died in a house fire. Speaking dispassionately—if not heartlessly—though, did the fire actually cost Mr. Laaperi, or did he lose $3.4 million (in 2010 dollars) as the result of his sons’ deaths? Does it make sense that he should become a millionaire as a result? Who ends up paying this amount? (The lawyers’ fees probably took about half.)
  5. Is it likely that smoke-alarm manufactures and sellers changed the instructions as a result of this case?