Court Considers Sanction Motion Based Upon Spoliation Claim in Design Defect Case
Cerrato v. Nutribullet, LLC, No. 8:16-cv-3077-T-24 JSS, (M.D. Fla. Nov. 6, 2017) filed by Phyllis and German Cerrato (“Plaintiffs”) includes negligence allegations that a blender manufactured by Nutribullet, LLC and Capital Brands, LLC (“Defendants”) was defectively designed. The complaint contains further causes of action of strict liability, and breaches of express and implied warranties which incorporates the defective design claims, and the additional allegations that inadequate warnings caused the defective blender to be unreasonably dangerous to consumers.
The Plaintiffs bought the subject Nutribullet Pro 900 blender on December 20, 2014. Once home with the blender and after setting it up for use, Plaintiff turned the blender on and made a smoothie. Plaintiffs contends that when Phyllis Cerrato attempted to turn the blender off, she was unable to do so.
The Plaintiffs then explain the functionality of the blender, and why they contend it is defective. The subject blender does not have a traditional “on/off” switch. Instead, the on-off functionality is accomplished by the twisting and untwisting of the blending “cup” on and off the base of the unit: the blender consists of a cup that holds the ingredients to be blended, a lid that contains the blending blades, and a base that contains the motor. There are three locking tabs on the cup that are used to physically secure the cup onto the motor base. When the cup is twisted into the base, the motor turns on, and when the cup is twisted off the base, the motor turns off.
Plaintiff Phyllis Cerrato states that she was unable to twist the cup off and stop the motor, so she unplugged the blender and then waited approximately twenty minutes for the unit to cool down. Then, when Plaintiff opened the top of the blender, the contents inside the blender cup exploded, severely burning her and causing property damage to the kitchen.
The subject blender had thereafter been returned to Defendants by the Planitffs. However, when Defendants’ expert tested and analyzed he subject blender, he found that the three locking tabs that would normally connect the cup to the base were broken off. Defendants then filed a sanctions motion based upon spoliation of evidence. By this motion the Defendants requested that the Court consider the alternative sanctions of: (1) dismissal of the case with prejudice; (2) an adverse inference jury instruction that had the blender cup been properly preserved, it would have shown that Plaintiff could have untwisted the cup from the base and turned the blender off without difficulty; or, (3) that Defendants be allowed to present evidence at trial regarding the circumstances of the missing locking tabs.
In considering the Defendants’ motion, the Court reviewed the standard for a finding of spoliation: the intentional destruction, mutilation, alteration, or concealment of evidence. The Court further considered that appropriate sanctions for spoliation may include, among other things, dismissal of the case; exclusion of expert testimony; or instruction to the jury that spoliation of evidence raises a presumption against the spoliator.
Based upon the foregoing considerations, the Court determined that in order for it to impose a spoliation sanction, Defendants had the burden to show the following four criteria: (1) that the locking tabs used to exist on the blender cup; (2) that Plaintiffs had a duty to preserve the evidence; (3) that the locking tabs being attached to the cup is a crucial element for Defendants to be able to prove their defense; and (4) that the breaking off of the locking tabs was done by Plaintiffs in bad faith.
The Court determined that the Defendants met their burden of showing the first two criteria, but that they failed to meet their burden of showing the third and fourth. Therefore, the Court denied Defendants’ motion and request for sanctions.