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Merfeld v. Dometic Corporation

United States District Court, N.D. Iowa, Eastern Division

January 25, 2018

MARK MERFELD, et al., Plaintiffs,




         This action arises from a fire that caused damage to personal property and a structure located in Independence, Iowa. Plaintiffs Mark and Debra Merfeld and Merfeld Transport, Inc., allege that the fire was caused by a defective refrigerator manufactured and sold by defendant Dometic Corporation (Dometic).

         This case is currently before me on two motions. The first is Dometic's motion (Doc. No. 26) for summary judgment. Dometic's supporting brief (Doc. No. 26-5) includes, inter alia, arguments concerning the alleged spoliation of evidence. Plaintiffs filed a resistance (Doc. No. 36) and Dometic filed a reply (Doc. No. 43-1).

         The second, filed the same day, is Dometic's separate motion (Doc. No. 28) for the sanction of dismissal based on spoliation of evidence. In support of this motion, Dometic relies entirely on the spoliation section of its summary judgment brief. See Doc. No. 28-1 at 1. Plaintiffs filed a resistance (Doc. No. 33) and Dometic filed a reply (Doc. No. 35).[1] I find that oral argument is not necessary on either motion. Both are fully submitted and ready for decision.


         Plaintiffs commenced this action on August 15, 2016, by filing a complaint (Doc. No. 1) against Dometic. They allege that on October 10, 2014, plaintiffs Mark and Debra Merfeld owned a 2003 Forest River Cardinal 33TS RV (the RV) and that Dometic had “manufactured, designed and/or assembled refrigerators that were equipped in Forest River's RVs.” Doc. No. 1 at ¶¶ 6, 7, 10. They further allege that during the relevant time period, Dometic was the “exclusive retailer of Dometic brand refrigerators in the United States” and, upon information and belief, that the RV was “equipped with a refrigerator designed, Manufactured [sic], assembled and sold” by Dometic. Id. at ¶¶ 8-9.

         According to the complaint, a failure in the RV's refrigerator caused a fire that consumed the RV and caused damage to a building owned by Mark and Debra Merfeld and to personal property owned by all of the plaintiffs. Id. at ¶ 12. The complaint includes the following counts against Dometic: (1) negligence in the manufacturing and/or design of the refrigerator, in the construction and/or assembly of the refrigerator and in the distribution of the refrigerator; (2) breach of express and/or implied warranty; (3) post sale failure to warn and (4) strict liability. Id. at pp. 3-4. Plaintiffs invoke the court's diversity jurisdiction and allege damages in excess of $75, 000. Id. at ¶¶ 1-5.

         Dometic filed an answer (Doc. No. 5) on September 15, 2016, in which it denies liability and raises various defenses. Dometic then filed the motions at issue on November 27, 2017. In responding to Dometic's summary judgment motion, plaintiffs voluntarily dismissed Count 2 (breach of express and/or implied warranty) and Count 3 (post sale failure to warn). Doc. No. 36-5 at 3 n. 2. Thus, Count 1 (negligent manufacture and/or design) and Count 4 (strict liability) remain for consideration.


         The following facts are undisputed except where otherwise noted.

         Mark and Debra Merfeld are residents of Iowa and owners of a storage building (the Building) located in Independence, Iowa. They owned personal property in the Building. Merfeld Transport, Inc., is an Iowa corporation that also owned personal property in the Building. The Building was over 12, 000 square feet, was wired for electricity and contained numerous vehicles, boats, farm equipment, tractors and other items, including the RV. Debra Merfeld purchased the RV in 2005. The RV contained a refrigerator.[2]

         Dometic is a retailer of various products, including refrigerators. Prior to 2009, Dometic purchased refrigerators from Dometic AB, a distinct entity, to sell to its customers. In 2009, Dometic assumed manufacturing responsibilities from Dometic AB.[3]In 2006, and again in 2007 or 2008, Dometic issued a recall for Dometic brand RV refrigerators.

         On October 11, 2014, a fire occurred at the Building. The fire caused damage to the RV, the Building, and other personal property stored in the Building, with the dollar value of the loss allegedly reaching at least $1.5 million.[4] At the time of the fire, plaintiffs were insured by State Farm Fire and Casualty Company (State Farm). State Farm retained George Howe, a fire investigator, to determine the cause of the fire.

         Howe viewed the scene for the first time on October 14, 2014. He did not conduct a thorough investigation at the time, as he intended to wait for a joint inspection with representatives of parties who may have been responsible for the fire. On October 16, 2014, State Farm sent a notice of claim and inspection to Dometic. This notice stated that Dometic may be responsible for the loss and invited Dometic to send a representative to participate in the joint inspection, which was scheduled to take place on November 4, 2014.

         Before the joint inspection took place, Mark Merfeld and his son Ryan Merfeld, along with other individuals, removed debris from the north, east and west sides of the Building, up to the area in which the RV was located. Some cleanup also occurred on the south side of the building, without disturbing the RV. A substantial amount of debris was removed from the scene before the joint inspection occurred.

         Additional facts will be addressed as necessary, below.


         Any party may move for summary judgment regarding all or any part of the claims asserted in a case. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). Summary judgment is appropriate when “the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue of material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law.” Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986).

         A material fact is one that “‘might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law.'” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). Thus, “the substantive law will identify which facts are material.” Id. Facts that are “critical” under the substantive law are material, while facts that are “irrelevant or unnecessary” are not. Id.

         An issue of material fact is genuine if it has a real basis in the record, Hartnagel v. Norman, 953 F.2d 394, 395 (8th Cir. 1992) (citing Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586-87 (1986)), or when “‘a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party' on the question.” Woods v. DaimlerChrysler Corp., 409 F.3d 984, 990 (8th Cir. 2005) (quoting Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248). Evidence that only provides “some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts, ” Matsushita, 475 U.S. at 586, or evidence that is “merely colorable” or “not significantly probative, ” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249-50, does not make an issue of material fact genuine.

         As such, a genuine issue of material fact requires “sufficient evidence supporting the claimed factual dispute” so as to “require a jury or judge to resolve the parties' differing versions of the truth at trial.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248-49. The party moving for entry of summary judgment bears “the initial responsibility of informing the court of the basis for its motion and identifying those portions of the record which show a lack of a genuine issue.” Hartnagel, 953 F.2d at 395 (citing Celotex, 477 U.S. at 323). Once the moving party has met this burden, the nonmoving party must go beyond the pleadings and by depositions, affidavits, or otherwise, designate specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial. Mosley v. City of Northwoods, 415 F.3d 908, 910 (8th Cir. 2005). The nonmovant must show an alleged issue of fact is genuine and material as it relates to the substantive law. If a party fails to make a sufficient showing of an essential element of a claim or defense with respect to which that party has the burden of proof, then the opposing party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322.

         In determining if a genuine issue of material fact is present, I must view the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Matsushita, 475 U.S. at 587-88. Further, I must give the nonmoving party the benefit of all reasonable inferences that can be drawn from the facts. Id. However, “because we view the facts in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, we do not weigh the evidence or attempt to determine the credibility of the witnesses.” Kammueller v. Loomis, Fargo & Co., 383 F.3d 779, 784 (8th Cir. 2004). Instead, “the court's function is to determine whether a dispute about a material fact is genuine.” Quick v. Donaldson Co., Inc., 90 F.3d 1372, 1376-77 (8th Cir. 1996).

         V. DISCUSSION

         State law applies to products liability actions based on diversity. Adams v. Toyota Motor Corp., 867 F.3d 903, 916 (8th Cir. 2017). Thus, Iowa law applies to this action. As noted above, the remaining causes of action are (1) strict liability and (2) negligence in the manufacturing and/or design of the refrigerator, construction and/or assembly of the refrigerator and distribution of the refrigerator. However, Iowa law has essentially eliminated the distinction between negligence and strict liability for product defect claims. Nationwide Agribusiness Ins. Co. v. SMA Elevator Constr. Inc., 816 F.Supp.2d 631, 643 (N.D. Iowa 2011). With regard to design defect claims, the Iowa Supreme Court has held that it is improper to submit a strict liability claim and a negligence claim premised on the same alleged defect to a jury. Wright v. Brooke Grp. Ltd., 652 N.W.2d 159, 169 (Iowa 2002). Instead, the court directed that a claim based on a defective product design be labeled as a “design defect claim without reference to strict liability or negligence principles.” Id.

         In seeking summary judgment on the remaining claims, Dometic relies primarily on the statutory immunity set forth in Iowa Code § 618.13. Dometic makes various other, alternative arguments, including its argument for dismissal based on spoliation of evidence. I will begin by addressing the statutory immunity issue.

         A. Statutory Immunity

         1. Parties' arguments

         Dometic argues that it is entitled to summary judgment on plaintiffs' product defect claims because Dometic was not the manufacturer, designer or assembler of the refrigerator and thus enjoys immunity under Iowa Code § 613.18(1). Doc. No. 26-5 at 7. Dometic argues that it did not start manufacturing refrigerators until 2009, while the refrigerator present in the 2003 RV would have been manufactured no later than 2003. Id. at 9-10.

         Plaintiffs respond that the statute does not grant Dometic immunity from liability because there is a question of material fact as to whether Dometic was a manufacturer or designer of the refrigerator. Doc. No. 36-5 at 2. They argue that Dometic's Director of Engineering, Patrick McConnell, was closely involved with the Dometic AB design team, and his involvement essentially made Dometic a manufacturer such that it is disqualified from the statutory protection. Id. at 2-3, 5-9, 14. Plaintiffs also argue that Dometic admitted it was the manufacturer when it issued the product recall, such that for consumer purposes it is liable as a manufacturer under the apparent manufacturer doctrine. Id. at 9-10, 12-13.

         In response, Dometic contends there is no evidence that input from McConnell contributed in any way to the alleged defect. Doc. No. 43-1 at 8. Dometic also argues that the apparent manufacturer doctrine is not currently viable under Iowa law and is inconsistent with the language of Section 613.18. Id. at 2-3. Finally, Dometic contends that even if the doctrine is viable, it would not apply under these facts. Id. at 4.

         2. ...

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