Monday, February 21, 2011

Case Brief: Benford v. Berkeley Heating Co.

Today's case "brief" (I should call these "surveys" since they admittedly are never very "brief") is Benford v. Berkeley Heating Co., 258 S.C. 357, 188 S.E.2d 841 (Ct. App. 1972). The case involves a furnace and component blower switch that -- although found not to be defective in design -- combines with improper installation to cause a fire. There is some artful pleading and and election of remedies that influence the outcome of this case. It is not a case of "bad facts make bad law," as I do not disagree with the court's findings based on the theory of recovery. However, I am not sure that the outcome would be the same if this case was heard today or if the case asserted negligence or strict liability as a theory of recovery.

FACTUAL BACKGROUND: Berkeley Heating Company ("Berkeley") installed a furnace manufactured by The Trane Company ("Trane") in the crawlspace of a new home in August of 1977. 258 S.C. at 361, 188 S.E.3d at 842. The home burned on November 30, 1967. Id. As installed, the furnace's vent was only two and three-quarter inches from the pine joist where the fire originated. Id. Trane's manual required clearance of at least six inches between the heater's draft hood and the joist. Id. The manual also required that the flue pipe to be pitched upwards to facilitate escape of exhaust through a "short and direct route." Id. However, as installed by Berkeley, the flue pipe was ten feet long and made three ninety degree turns. Id. Two experts investigated the fire for Plaintiff Marvin Benford ("Plaintiff"). Id. The first expert did not find anything wrong with the furnace itself, but cited to three errors in the furnace's installation: (1) inadequate clearance between the draft hood and joist, (2) three ninety degree elbows in the vent connector, and (3) the down pitch of the vent connector to the chimney. Id. at 361-362, 188 S.E.2d at 842. Another expert investigated the case for Plaintiff in February of 1969. Id. at 362, 188 S.E.2d at 842. He concluded that the blower had not operated during the fire. Id.

PROCEDURE: After receiving the first expert's report, Plaintiff sued Berkeley alone in Charleston County. 258 S.C. at 362, 188 S.E.2d at 842. After the second expert's report, Plaintiff discontinued his Charleston County suit against Berkeley alone and commenced a lawsuit against Berkeley and Trane in Dorchester County. Id. Plaintiff sought recovery on several theories, including negligence and implied warranty. Id. Plaintiff alleged that the failure of the blower to operate caused the temperature to become higher than normal. Id. The higher temperature and faulty installation by Berkeley combined to cause the fire. Id. The trial court required Plaintiff to elect a remedy for recovery at the end of his testimony, and Plaintiff chose breach of implied warranty. Id. The jury found in favor Berkeley, but returned a verdict against Trane. Id. at 361, 188 S.E. 2d at 842. Trane appealed.

ISSUES: Whether the trial court erred in not granting Trane's motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict or for a new trial. 258 S.C. at 361, 188 S.E.2d at 842.

DISPOSITION: Reversed. "For the reasons stated, the only reasonable inference from the evidence is that the intervening independent negligence of Berkeley was not reasonably foreseeable by Trane and that the destruction of plaintiff's house was not a natural and probable result of the failure of the blower switch. Trane's motion for judgment Non obstante verdicto should have been granted." 258 S.C. 368, 188 S.E.2d at 846.

RULES AND OPINION: The court set forth the applicable law for breach of implied warranty as follows:
The vendor is answerable for breach of implied warranty incident to a sale, as for any breach of contract, "for whatever damages follow as a natural consequence and proximate result of his conduct, or which may be reasonably be supposed to have been within the contemplation of the parties at the time the contract was made as a probable result of a breach of it."

258 S.C. at 362, 188 S.E.2d at 843 (quoting Nat'l Tire & Rubb Co. v. Hoover, 128 S.C. 344, 347-48, 122 S.E. 858, 859 (1924)). Applying this law, liability only extends to consequences that would follow the breach in the usual course of events, i.e., events that are foreseeable. Id. The court found that there was sufficient evidence to support the verdict that the switch was defective when it left Trane's hands. Id. at 363, 188 S.E.2d at 843. The court therefore reviewed whether there was evidence to support that the fire was a natural and foreseeable consequence of Trane's breach of implied warranty. Id. In other words, the court reviewed whether Trane could have foreseen the fire as a probable and natural result of the failure of the blower switch. Id.

The court reviewed the normal function of the heater and determined that if the blower switch does not operate, the air inside the heat exchanger to the unit continues to to grow hotter instead of being expelled into the dust system. Id. at 364, 188 S.E.3d at 843. The unit can complete a cycle in this manner, but it is said to be "cycling on the limit switch" and the result is that the draft hood reaches a much higher peak temperature than it otherwise would during normal cycling. Id. at 364, 188 S.E.2d at 843-44. The limit switch's function is to prevent dangerous overheating. Id. at 364, 188 S.E.2d at 844. Be that as it may, the furnace is designed to run in this manner so that there is sufficient heat to prevent pipes from freezing if the blower fails while a family is away. Id.

Significantly, Plaintiff did not claim defective manufacture and design of the heater by Trane, or that the installation manual was inadequate. Id. at 365, 188 S.E.2d at 844. Plaintiff's sole claim against Trane was with regard to the defective blower switch. Id. His installation claim was directed solely at Berkeley. Id. The court found that in the absence of proof to the contrary, Plaintiff's evidence supported that Berkeley's improper installation "interrupted the normally foreseeable train of events linking manufacture with use." Id. Berkeley's installation did not "usually and naturally" precede the use of a furnace. Id. Therefore, "[u]nless there was evidence reasonably pointing to the conclusion that the defective blower switch alone would have caused the loss in natural course, the judgment must fall." Id. The court reviewed the testimony of Plaintiff's experts, and it could not find any such evidence. Id. at 365-68, 188 S.E.2d at 844-46. Plaintiff's first expert said that the defective blower switch would not have caused the fire without the faulty installation. Id. at 365-66, 188 S.E.2d at 844. Plaintiff's second expert admitted during his testimony that the faulty installation made the difference in the fire's ignition. Id. at 366-68, 188 S.E.2d at 844-46.

The court recognized that Trane anticipated that its blower may not work all the time for a variety of different reasons (e.g., clogging, etc.), so it was designed to cycle safely on the limit switch when properly installed. Id. at 368, 188 S.E.2d at 846. "Any evidence that the furnace cycling on the limit switch would have caused the fire, even if it had been installed in the manner directed by the manual, would have pointed to a defect in design as the cause of the fire, which is not charged as a ground of recovery." Id. Based on Plaintiff's theory of recovery, the court reversed the verdict.

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