The Court of Appeals just published Lemaster v. Fluke Corp., which resulted from a products liability case. The Lemasters, along with another man, Arnett, were injured after an explosion occurred while they were working on an electric panel. The main breaker switch was in the off position and power appeared to be off inside the plant. The crew used a voltage meter to insure that no voltage was present. The voltage read zero, but unfortunately, the panel was hot and an arc caused an explosion. The voltage meter was originally tested and found to be in proper working order. The plaintiffs alleged that the electrical circuit connecting the power source to the crusher unit breaker and to the crusher unit motor had been wired to bypass the main breaker. They thought they had been injured by improperly wired or erroneously labeled circuit breakers.

In late August of 2001, the plaintiffs learned that some Fluke voltage meters were likely to give inaccurate readings under certain circumstances. On September 3, 2001, Plaintiffs filed an amended complaint charging that Fluke Corporation had manufactured and placed into the stream of commerce a faulty voltage meter. Fluke defended on statute of limitation grounds and filed for summary judgment.

The trial court granted summary judgment as to Lemasters but held that Arnett was incapacitated from his injuries and therefore, the statute tolled with respect to him. Lemasters had to wait for the trial with Arnett before appealing. (Arnett was awarded over $2 million). Essentially, Lemasters argued that Fluke knew of a defect in its product yet failed to tell the Consumer Product Safety Commission until sometime in 2001. According to the Lemasters this was the first time they could have known that the product was defective. Fluke defended claiming that a reasonable inspection and the facts as present would have put Lemasters on notice of a potential claim. Fluke argued that its failure to report the problem to the CPSC did not affect Lemasters current claim.

The Court of Appeals estopped Fluke from relying on the statute of limitation, claiming that it’s failure to notify the CPSC was a misrepresentation about the products safety sufficient to toll the statute of limitation. It did not think that Fluke should be rewarded by such behavior. It noted that the voltage meter was originally tested and found to be working. Therefore, the plaintiffs had complied with their duty to reasonably inspect. According to the Court; “The elements of equitable estoppel have been met in this case. In light of the circumstances alleged by the LeMasters and supported by their discovery documents, it appears that the manufacturer indeed remained silent when it had an affirmative statutory obligation to report information relative to the safety of its product.”

Editor’s Comment:

Certainly an interesting scenario. Fluke makes some valid points. Main breaker off, lights off, no voltage on meter, voltage in panel, boom, voltage meter must be defective. They also note, probably correctly, that the concealment did not prevent the plaintiffs from taking affirmative action to find out if the product was defective. However, its not like the plaintiffs didn’t do anything. They relied on the report by the federal agency that the voltage meter wasn’t defective. Besides, these are all technical arguments, which are lost when you look at the immense damage done by a product the company knows is defective, yet conceals that knowledge. As between the two, I can’t say that technical arguments from a company concealing defective products should carry the day.