The Eastern District of New York has dismissed claims against the makers of PAM cooking spray after the plaintiffs failed to present admissible expert witness testimony.
In August 2016, Lucita Arena was in her kitchen preparing dinner when a nearby can of PAM cooking spray exploded and injured her. Lucita and her husband Jose Urena sued ConAgra Goods, Inc. and DS Containers, Inc., the makers of PAM and its container. The couple alleged design defect, failure to warn, and loss of consortium.
The type of PAM canister that exploded has four U-shaped score lines that are designed to open when the pressure inside the can rises to a particular level. The can features warnings including, “USE ONLY AS DIRECTED. FLAMMABLE. DO NOT SPRAY ON HEATED SURFACES OR NEAR OPEN FLAME … CAN MAY BURST IF LEFT ON STOVE OR NEAR HEAT SOURCE.” The canister that injured Lucita Arena was discarded by her attorney’s custodial staff after it was left in a conference room before experts had the opportunity to examine it.
The Design Expert
Plaintiffs retained Dr. Lester Hendrickson, Ph.D., as a design expert to help them prove their theory of causation. Dr. Hendrickson had a Ph.D. in metallurgical engineering and serves as a professor emeritus at Arizona State University. He has authored more than 1,000 technical reports as an expert witness. Dr. Hendrickson planned to testify that “absent the vents in this can, the circumstances under which” the plaintiff “was burned would not have occurred.”
The defendants objected to the design expert and the district court decided to exclude him. The court ruled that Dr. Hendrickson did not satisfy Daubert because he had failed to explain how the alternative design that he proposed would be safer. The court also found that Dr. Hendrickson’s opinion failed to satisfy Daubert’s criteria for reliability because he had criticized the PAM canister’s propellant, but had not proposed a safer proponent, nor tested any. Further, his proposal had never been subjected to peer review or publication. Therefore, the court found that Dr. Hendrickson had failed to show general acceptance of his design or methodology.
The defendants filed a motion for summary judgment. The defendants argued that the plaintiff’s design defect failed because they had not offered admissible evidence that the design of the PAM canister and not a manufacturing defect had caused the plaintiff’s injuries. The plaintiffs had also failed to offer admissible evidence from an expert regarding a defect or a feasible alternative design. The court agreed with the defendants.
The court also ruled that the plaintiffs’ failure to warn claim did not raise any triable questions of fact because they could not show that any inadequacy of the warnings was the proximate cause of the plaintiff’s harm. The court ruled that the plaintiff’s theory that the warnings were inadequate for failure to warn about the canister’s vent design failed because they could not show that the absence of the warning was the cause of the plaintiff’s injuries.