A recent opinion from the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Alabama highlights how the failure to identify the seller of a defective product can lead to dismissal.
In Jackson v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., No. 2:17-cv-00634-AKK (N.D. Ala.) the court was faced with a plaintiff who was severely burned when a gasoline container exploded and caught fire. At the time, the plaintiff was burning a small pile of debris in his backyard and poured gasoline from the container onto the flames. This led to an ignition of the gasoline inside the container.
The plaintiff properly identified the manufacturer of the container as Blitz USA, Inc. The specific defect alleged was the containers lacked a flame-arrestor to prevent ignition, which allowed the gasoline to ignite and explode. However, the manufacturer entered bankruptcy several years prior, in part, because of liability arising from similar lawsuits and the plaintiff would be unable to recover from it.
Without a viable manufacturer to pursue, the plaintiff focused his attention on the presumed seller, Wal-Mart. However, Wal-Mart challenged its liability and claimed that the plaintiff was unable to plausibly establish that the subject container was indeed purchased from Wal-Mart, instead of some unknown seller. The court was faced with deciding whether there were sufficient facts to establish more than a “mere possibility” that the container was purchased from Wal-Mart. Ultimately, the plaintiff failed to meet its burden.
The facts the plaintiff relied on to support his contention were shaky at best. In providing a history of the subject container, the plaintiff explained that it was given to him by his father who allegedly purchased it from Wal-Mart. The only support he could provide that his father purchased it from Wal-Mart was (1) Wal-Mart sold the containers during the relevant time period; (2) his father purchased “everything” from Wal-Mart; and (3) Wal-Mart was the only seller within 40 miles of where his father lived who sold the type of container at issue. Importantly, the plaintiff did not testify that his father claimed to purchase it from Wal-Mart, but was instead relying entirely on circumstantial evidence for this contention. Recognizing that the container could have been purchased from another retailer near his home, or before the father moved to the town, or borrowed from someone else and never returned, the court determined that the plaintiff failed to show that it was more than a “mere possibility” that Wal-Mart was the seller.
At the end of the day, it’s important to recognize that a plaintiff requires some reasonable evidence to support a contention that a certain seller did in fact sell the product. Here, we see an extreme example of a plaintiff lacking meaningful support for claiming who sold a particular product. This case highlights the importance of building a strong foundation when alleging the product was purchased from a certain seller.