FindLaw KnowledgeBasePublished: 2012-03-28
In a flash of intense heat, New Jersey’s product liability laws may have changed forever. As Alfred DeGennaro walked out of a New Jersey Pep Boys store many months ago, product defects were likely the last thing on his mind. But, moments later, when the lead-acid battery pack he had just purchased spontaneously erupted in his hands, he embarked on an irrevocable path that may ultimately mold the law for years to come.
DeGennaro sought compensation for the injuries he sustained during the battery explosion. It is no surprise that as a plaintiff, DeGennaro named the manufacturer of the battery in his lawsuit. But, what was more significant was that the suit also targeted the retailer of the faulty product, Pep Boys.
In what some have called a landmark decision, a U.S. District court in New Jersey held that Pep Boys could be held liable for the damage caused by battery explosion. The court’s ruling could have a significant impact on future cases — ultimately allowing wrongfully injured parties and their New Jersey product liability lawyers to have more options when pursuing compensation.
Sellers Should Have Recognized Dangerous Propensities of Battery Packaging
The Rally “Boost-It” battery pack sold to Mr. DeGennaro was packaged in a heat-sealed PVC wrapper — packaging which can contribute to the buildup of combustible gases when used with lead-acid batteries. In the case DeGennaro v. Rally Manufacturing, the court found Pep Boys, as a specialty retailer of auto products, knew (or should have known) that as sold, the battery carried a risk of explosion.
The manufacturer of the explosive battery admitted that its product had been defectively packaged — though there is nothing novel about holding manufacturers responsible for injuries caused by dangerous products they produce. However, it is more of a foreign concept to pursue legal claims against retailers for defective items.
Under the “safe harbor” provisions of the New Jersey Products Liability act, sellers of defective consumer products may sidestep liability by identifying a manufacturer against whom an injured plaintiff may obtain relief, by demonstrating that they did not create the defect (for instance, by damaging the product during shipment) and by showing they played no part in the design, manufacture, packaging or labeling of the product. There is a caveat, however: retailers who know, or should know, about a dangerous product defect and sell the item anyways cannot take advantage of the safe harbor protections if the defect causes injury.
Pep Boys sells auto parts and accessories, including a range of batteries similar to the one that blew up in Mr. DeGennaro’s hands. It was undisputed that warning labels and instructions on the battery pack cautioned that it may emit explosive gas, which should have raised questions to the trained eye about the safety of airtight packaging. It is common knowledge among car mechanics and others familiar with lead-acid batteries that the items must be properly ventilated to prevent explosion. And, a careful visual inspection should have revealed that pressure was building within the battery packaging, a sure indication of a problem.
Considering these points and Pep Boys’ status as a specialty retailer, the court in DeGennaro v. Rally Manufacturing found that Pep Boys employees should have been able to recognize the potential for explosive gas build up in a lead-acid battery unit completely encased in plastic. Thus, Mr. DeGennaro was ultimately able to hold Pep Boys monetarily responsible for his injuries.
A Testament to Retailers’ Duty to Sell Safe Products
The DeGennaro v. Rally Manufacturing case could have important implications for future products liability cases in New Jersey courts. It highlights the responsibility retailers have — particularly specialty retailers selling a product related to their area of expertise — to ensure that products are safe when they leave a retail location in the hands of a consumer. Sellers have a clear legal duty to identify and correct obvious dangerous flaws in the items they market to the public.
If you have been injured by a defective product, this ruling may empower your pursuit of compensation. Retailers can no longer hide so easily behind the safe harbor provisions of the New Jersey Product Liability Act — putting them, as well as manufacturers, within your legal reach.
Medical bills, lost wages and all other costs of debilitating injury can be recovered from those at fault for putting an unsafe product in your hands. If an ill-conceived product has caused you harm, a products liability lawyer could help provide the solution you have been looking for.