United States District Court, N.D. Iowa, Eastern Division
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER ON MOTION FOR SUMMARY
JUDGMENT AND MOTION FOR SANCTIONS FOR SPOLIATION OF
LEONARD T. STRAND, CHIEF JUDGE.
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
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).
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). I find that oral argument is not necessary
on either motion. Both are fully submitted and ready for
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.
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.
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.
following facts are undisputed except where otherwise noted.
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.
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.In 2006, and again in 2007 or 2008, Dometic
issued a recall for Dometic brand RV refrigerators.
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. 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
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.
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.
facts will be addressed as necessary, below.
SUMMARY JUDGMENT STANDARDS
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.