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Plyler v. Whirlpool Corp.

United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit

May 5, 2014

ALLEN PLYLER, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
WHIRLPOOL CORPORATION, Defendant-Appellee

Argued December 6, 2012.

Page 510

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division. No. 08 C 6637 -- Geraldine Soat Brown, Magistrate Judge.

For Allen Plyler, Plaintiff - Appellant: Scott Skaletsky, Molzahn, Rocco, Reed & Rouse, Llc, Chicago, IL.

For Whirlpool Corporation, Defendant - Appellee: Michael D. Hostetter, Nall & Miller, Llp, Atlanta, GA.

Before FLAUM, EASTERBROOK, and ROVNER, Circuit Judges.

OPINION

Page 511

Rovner, Circuit Judge .

Allen Plyler sued Whirlpool Corporation, alleging that a Whirlpool microwave oven started a fire that injured him. Proceeding by consent before a magistrate judge on claims of strict products liability and negligent recall, a jury returned a verdict in favor of Whirlpool. Plyler moved for a new trial, asserting that the jury verdict was against the manifest weight of the evidence. He also challenged two evidentiary rulings, one that limited his testimony to his observations and another that allowed questions about the relationship between the fire and his later divorce. The district court denied Plyler's motion for a new trial, and he appeals. Because the district court did not abuse its discretion in concluding that the jury verdict was supported by the evidence or in rendering the two challenged evidentiary rulings, we affirm the judgment of the court.

I.

The fire occurred about seven years after Plyler purchased a Whirlpool microwave oven and installed it above the stove at his house. On October 10, 2006, at about 9:00 p.m., Plyler used the microwave to heat food. Eight hours later, around 5:00 a.m., Plyler's houseguest woke him, warning him of a fire in the microwave. When Plyler went downstairs and looked at the microwave, he saw three fires inside of it and noticed an orange glow near the top of the unit. After attempting to put out the fire himself, Plyler called for help. Firefighters arrived and extinguished the fire, but Plyler suffered physical and emotional injuries. He injured his elbow and knee while he ran into and out of his house during the fire, and he also experienced post-traumatic stress disorder that he attributed to watching his house burn. (The damage to his property is not at issue in this case.)

At the trial on the negligent recall and strict liability claims, the parties' evidence focused on the cause of the fire. An investigator for the fire department determined that the fire had originated near the top of the microwave, but he could not identify a specific cause and reported the cause as " undetermined." Plyler blamed the fire on a product defect that had led Whirlpool in 2001 to recall several brands of microwaves. Larry Latack, Whirlpool's Director of Global Product Safety, testified about that defect and when it posed a risk of fire. The recalled microwaves posed a fire hazard only if two circumstances were present: (1) the microwave contained splattered food that had gone uncleaned for an extended time, and (2) the microwave was running at the time of the fire. Plyler testified that he kept the microwave very clean and never left splattered food remaining inside the unit. He also testified that on the night of the fire, the microwave had been off for several hours and was not running when the fire started.

The trial evidence on the negligence claim also covered testimony about the effectiveness of Whirlpool's recall. After Whirlpool discovered that 1.8 million ...


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