The Cassisi Inference

Products liability cases can be very difficult to prove. The manufacturers hold almost all of the relevant evidence and often engage in extensive stonewalling and other abusive discovery tactics to prevent you from uncovering the evidence you need. While there are methods to combat stonewalling which we address elsewhere, there are other tools which may apply depending upon the facts and circumstances of your case. One such tool is the inference of defectiveness established by Cassisi v. Maytag Co., 396 So. 2d 1140 (Fla. 1st DCA 1981).

Cassisi involved a dryer that caught on fire and burned the plaintiffs’ home down. Id. at 1142. During her deposition, Mrs. Cassisi testified that the dryer had been purchased 19 months prior to the fire, that it had been operated normally, and that it was never serviced or repaired. Id. at 1142-43. Moreover, the Cassisis’ expert testified that the fire originated inside the dryer. Id. at 1143. Unfortunately, due to the extensive damage caused by the fire, the plaintiffs’ expert was unable to either pinpoint the exact cause of the defect which caused the fire or negate other possible causes of the fire. Id. Based upon this perceived failure, the trial court entered summary judgment in favor of the manufacturer. Id. The First District Court of Appeal reversed this decision, reasoning that “when a product malfunctions during normal operation, a legal inference . . . arises, and the injured plaintiff thereby establishes a prima facie case for jury consideration.” Id. at 1148.

In the decades since Cassisi was decided, Florida courts, as well as Federal courts applying Florida law, have applied this inference to many different cases involving various types of products. Examples of such opinions include:

• Gencorp, Inc. v. Wolfe, 481 So. 2d 109 (Fla. 1st DCA 1985), where the First District held that a case involving a tire that had blown out after 2,500 miles could have properly been resolved by a jury despite the absence of the tire pursuant to the Cassisi inference.

• McCorvey v. Baxter Healthcare Corp., 298 F.3d 1253 (11th Cir. 2002), where the Eleventh Circuit reversed a summary judgment in favor of a catheter manufacturer under the rationale that the plaintiff was entitled to the benefit of the Cassisi inference based upon evidence showing “that the catheter . . . erupted during the course of normal operation.”

• Edic ex rel. Edic v. Century Products Co., 364 F. 3d 1276 (11th Cir. 2004), where the Eleventh Circuit reversed the district court’s grant of judgment as a matter of law in favor of a child seat manufacturer under the rationale that “the evidence that [the child restraint system] should have restrained [the child] but failed to do so is sufficient to permit the Cassisi inference of defect because it implies that the [child restraint system] malfunctioned during a collision that was within the range of its normal use.”

• Jones v. Heil Co., 566 So. 2d 565 (Fla. 1st DCA 1990), where the First District reversed the trial court’s directed verdict in a case involving a garbage collection unit which expelled a board that struck the plaintiff in the eye, reasoning that the plaintiff was entitled to a Cassisi inference based upon the testimony showing that: there was nothing improper about placing the boards where they were placed; the unit would not expel those boards if it was operating in accordance with its design; and the unit had expelled objects on two (2) separate occasions.

• Nelson v. Freightliner, LLC, 154 Fed. Appx. 98 (11th Cir. 2005), where the Eleventh Circuit held that the plaintiff was entitled to the benefit of the Cassisi inference in presenting her theory that a defect in a semi-truck caused her husband to die from carbon monoxide poisoning, explaining that “[b]ecause a diesel truck is designed to prevent carbon monoxide and other gases from leaking into the cab of the truck, evidence that carbon monoxide leaked into the cab, during normal use, is evidence of a malfunction.”

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    Product Liability Lawyer - Newsome Melton