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Simmons v. Philips Electronics North America Corporation

United States District Court, N.D. Indiana

March 27, 2015

TANISHA A. SIMMONS, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
PHILIPS ELECTRONICS NORTH AMERICA CORPORATION, Defendant.

OPINION AND ORDER

THERESA L. SPRINGMANN, District Judge.

Plaintiffs Tanisha Ann Simmons, Mark Simmons, Sr., and their children Tanisha Marie Simmons and Edward Daniels by Tanisha Ann Simmons as next friend, initiated this product liability suit against the Defendant Philips Electronics North America Corporation. This matter is before the Court on the Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment [ECF No. 46]. For the reasons stated in this Opinion and Order, the Motion is granted in part and denied in part.

BACKGROUND

This case arises from an incident involving a 10-month-old child of the Plaintiffs, who was fatally injured on April 9, 2010, when a 27-inch-screen television manufactured by the Defendant fell and landed on the child.

At the time of the incident, the television was located on a dresser in the children's bedroom of the Plaintiffs' home. The television-manufactured in 2005-was 22.5 inches high, 20 inches deep, and weighed between 88-92 pounds. The dresser was 27.33 inches high, 15 inches deep, and weighed 46.5 pounds. The television was placed so that the front of the television lined up with the front edge of the dresser, and the rear of the television was touching a wall. Because the television contained a cathode ray tube ("CRT") to provide picture, most of the weight was toward the front.

Immediately following the incident, Edward and Tanisha Marie-who were eight-yearsold and four-years-old, respectively, at the time-told their mother that Tanisha Marie knocked the television off the dresser while she was climbing on a bunk bed ladder manufactured by COA, Inc., a/ka/Coaster Co. of America, Inc. ("COA"). The Plaintiffs' sworn interrogatory responses provide the following description of the incident:

[Mark Jr.] was injured when a ladder supplied with a bunk bed and which was not affixed or secured to the bunk bed, was used to climb by the decedent's four year old sister [Tanisha Marie]; while climbing on the non-affixed ladder, sister [Tanisha Marie] and the ladder fell and the ladder knocked against the dresser, on which was placed a television, causing the television to fall on [Mark Jr.].

However, during his sworn deposition testimony, Edward offered a conflicting version of the incident. According to Edward, prior to the television falling on Mark Jr., Tanisha Marie held onto the top of the television, while Edward held her by both ankles-one ankle in each hand-and lifted her feet to his chest in a "Superman position." (Edward Dep. 21.) As Tanisha Marie gripped the top of the television, Edward pulled on her three times to release her from the television, and on the third pull, the television allegedly fell forward off the dresser and onto Mark Jr., who was crawling on the floor. Edward said he lied when giving his original description of the incident because he was "scared... [of] getting in trouble." ( Id. 34.) When asked if the "ladder [had] anything to do with the [television] falling, " Edward replied, "No." ( Id. 25.)

Tanisha Ann, who was in a separate room when the television fell, allegedly found the television lying "screenside down" and the dresser standing upright in its "original position."

(Tanisha Ann Dep. 83.) Both Mark Sr. and Tanisha Ann testified that the television demonstrated no signs of instability prior to its fall. Aside from Edward and Tanisha Marie, there were no other witnesses to the incident.

Warnings/Safety Instructions

Mark Sr. testified that he purchased the television at a pawn shop. At the time of purchase, the television was removed from its original packaging, and therefore, did not include a user manual. The user manual issued with the television model at issue contains, in relevant part, the following warnings under the heading, "IMPORTANT SAFETY INSTRUCTIONS":

12. Use only with a cart, stand, tripod, bracket, or table specified by the manufacturer, or sold with the apparatus. When a cart is used, use caution when moving the cart/apparatus combination to avoid injury from tipover.
* * *
17. Tilt/Stability - All televisions must comply with recommended international global safety standards for tilt and stability properties of its cabinet design.
• Do not compromise these design standards by applying excessive pull force to the front, or top, of the cabinet which could ultimately overturn the product.[1]

The only external warning was located on the back of the television and it cautioned against the risk of electric shock if a consumer removes the television's cover, as required by Underwriter Laboratories ("UL") Standard No. 6500.[2]

Tip-Over Hazard

In their sworn submissions, the Plaintiffs show that, as early as 1998, the Consumer Electronic Association ("CEA") Product Safety Working Group-whose membership includes the Defendant and other electronics manufacturers-held meetings where the tipping of televisions was discussed. Notes from a 1998 meeting, which was attended by a representative of the Defendant, referenced a study published in the Pediatrics Journal showing that "73 cases of fallen TV sets [were] reported to the [Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC)] during the 7 year period investigated, 28 resulted in death [and] 38% of these deaths were attributed to [televisions] placed on stands or dressers." (CEA Ex. 1, ECF No. 49-2.) The notes further state that "[the group] [n]eeds to see if it is possible to standardize [a] bracket in TV designs for securing TV to stand." ( Id. )

On August 2, 2000, CEA's Vice President of Technology and Standards sent a letter to the Underwriters Laboratory, which referenced CPSC data showing "that there were many serious injuries and several children's deaths as the result of television sets not being adequately stable." (CEA Ex. 9, ECF No. 49-2.) As a result, the letter includes a proposal to amend UL stability requirements to require specified televisions to withstand a force of 20 percent or less of its weight without tipping over. The letter notes that "[b]esides television and furniture design requirements, an important aspect to reducing even the small number of incidents, is consumer education." ( Id. ) That same year, the CEA issued an informational flyer that warned consumers of the risk to children created by the placement of televisions on furniture. The flyer recommended that consumers "[u]se appropriate angle braces, straps and anchors to secure your furniture to the wall." (CEA Ex. 8, ECF No. 49-2.)

Wendell Johnson, a former employee of the Defendant, testified on the Defendant's behalf. During his employment with the Defendant, Johnson served as a member of the CEA Product Safety Working Group from approximately 2005 to 2011, and the UL Standards Technical Panel from approximately 1998 to 2011. As a member of the Product Safety Working Group, Johnson confirmed that he attended meetings where the "tip-over of televisions and their placement on furniture" was discussed. (Johnson Dep. 18-19.) In particular, group discussions pertained to the tip-over hazard created by the placement of CRT televisions on dressers located in children's rooms. ( Id. at 19, 27.) Johnson acknowledged that group members were generally aware of an increase in child injuries caused by tip-over incidents between 2001 and 2005. ( Id. at 44.) Consequently, the group discussed "different ways to inform the consumer, " which included the issuance of a postsale warning. ( Id. at 20, 27.) Johnson agreed that televisions with screen sizes between 20-30 inches were more likely to tip-over, and that placement of a television on a dresser posed "the greatest risk" of a tip-over. ( Id. at 34, 49.)

Nonetheless, Johnson said the television model at issue complied with UL standards for stability; namely, the television passed horizontal and vertical force tests.[3] Johnson also said the user manual incorporated 14 UL-required safety instructions, including one safety instruction related to stability. According to Johnson, the Defendant did not include mounting hardware with televisions due to concerns that consumers may experience electric shock while inadvertently turning a ...


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