HP Wins Dismissal of Hazardous Power Adapter Case
Michael F. Bahler | Bloomberg Law
The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois granted summary judgment to Hewlett-Packard Corp. (HP), in case alleging that a defective HP laptop power adaptor overheated and caused an Illinois woman to suffer second- and third-degree burns and permanent scarring.
On May 12, 2006, Patricia Ferraro purchased a new HP notebook computer. While using the computer later that month, she plugged the power adapter into a wall socket, set the adapter on the arm of a couch, and fell asleep on the couch. When she woke up, she saw that the adapter had fallen onto the couch and was resting on her right forearm, which was lined with blisters. She was later diagnosed with severe burns.
In May 2009, Ferraro brought a products liability action against HP in Illinois state court, alleging that the HP power adapter was defectively designed. After the case was removed to federal court, she submitted expert testimony that the adapter generated too much heat during the charge mode and should have been built with safety measures such as a cooling device or a heat shield. She argued that the product was unreasonably dangerous because an ordinary consumer would not expect a laptop’s power adopter to reach a temperature that could cause blisters and severe burns.
HP moved for summary judgment, contending that Ferraro had been on painkillers at the time of the accident and that she did not remove her arm from the hot adapter before suffering burns because she was impaired. It also adduced expert testimony from a plastic surgeon that the physiological withdrawal reflex would prompt a normal person to pull his or her arm away from a power adapter when it reached a hot temperature. The expert acknowledged that sleep might delay the withdrawal reflex but not to the point that the person would lie still and suffer an irreversible burn.
Ferraro contested that she had been under the influence of pain medication on the night of the accident. She also submitted expert testimony from a competing plastic surgeon that sleeping people can suffer burns even in the absence of drug use and that sometimes the sleeping person incorporates the pain into his or her dream.
The Court faulted Ferraro for not making precise arguments and for submitting evidence without supplying a specific context for it, writing that “Ferraro should not be allowed to scan and upload all her evidence onto the docket without specifying precisely what she relies on in responding to HP’s summary judgment motion.” It stated that Ferraro’s only viable argument under Illinois’s consumer expectations test, which requires a plaintiff to show that the product “failed to perform as safely as an ordinary consumer would expect when used in an intended or reasonably foreseeable manner,” was that an ordinary consumer would not expect the power adapter to reach a temperature that would cause an instantaneous burn. A broader claim, the Court noted, based on the foreseeability of a consumer falling asleep with the computer and making contact with the adapter for a long enough period of time to cause a burn failed because “that is not the intended use of a power adapter (powering the laptop and charging its battery), nor a use that is foreseeably similar to its intended use.”
The Court observed that if Ferraro had adduced admissible testimony supporting the instantaneous burn theory she would have likely survived summary judgment. She, however, failed to submit such evidence and only once mentioned the specific temperature of the adapter, which she claimed in her reply brief had reached 80 degrees Celsius. Her plastic surgery expert, though, had declined in his deposition to testify that an 80 degrees Celsius adapter would cause an instantaneous burn. The Court stated that this concession was “fatal to Ferraro’s attempt to proceed on the otherwise viable theory that an ordinary consumer would not expect an instantaneous burn from the adapter.” The Court refused to wade into the question of whether Ferraro was under the influence of painkillers when she suffered the burns, but found that the HP had satisfied its summary judgment burden regardless of the impairment issue. Accordingly, it granted HP’s motion and dismissed the case.
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