A federal judge in Connecticut has denied a motion by Sears, Roebuck & Co. to dismiss a wrongful death products liability lawsuit stemming from the death of a man crushed by a car while using an allegedly defective Sears’ jack stand.
In his March 29 ruling, Judge Jeffrey Meyer denied Sears’ effort to disallow expert testimony from a witness for the plaintiff, rejected its motion for summary judgment under the Connecticut Products Liability Act, and was unpersuaded by its claims that there were no grounds for punitive damages. The judge also denied a request to be removed from the lawsuit by Shinn Fu Company of America, but dismissed its parent company, Shinn Fu Corp., as a defendant.
“Mere corporate control through a parent-subsidiary relationship is insufficient to impute a subsidiary’s tort liability to its parent,” Meyer wrote.
At issue is the death of Waterford resident Christian Klorczyk Jr., who the lawsuit says died when a defective jack stand he purchased from Sears failed, causing a BMW sedan he was working on in the family garage to fall and crush him.
Klorczyk was a University of Connecticut senior at the time of the 2011 incident. He was home alone at the time, according to the lawsuit.
For its part, Sears denied Klorczyk was using the company jack stand. It argued that even if Klorczyk had used its product, the stand was not defective. It drove the point home in court papers, reiterating there was no proof that the jack was defective.
Representing the defendants are Dennis Brown and Steven Zakrzewski of Gordon Rees Scully Mansukhani; Peter Garvey of Higgins, Cavanagh & Cooney; and Erica Todd of Trotta, Trotta & Trotta. Zakrzewski declined to comment Monday and the other attorneys did not respond to a request for comment by press time.
The type of device that was holding up the vehicle before it fell on Klorczyk became central to the dispute. The family maintains he was using a single model 50163 Sears jack stand, but the defense disputes that, arguing that Klorczyk never used its jack that day.
Experts played a major role in Meyer’s ruling. The judge denied the company’s attempt to disallow testimony from Frederick Heath, the plaintiff’s expert. Heath’s initial report concluded the most likely explanation for the incident was that the jack stand had experienced a phenomenon known as “false engagement.” When false engagement occurs, the ratchet bar and locking pawl or stopper are much less secure and an outside force can cause the ratchet bar to slip out of place and collapse back into the base, allowing anything the ratchet bar has lifted to fall.
Sears disputed that claim. Its expert, James Sprague, said that instead of a jack stand failure taking place, the victim lifted the car only on the floor jack, from which the car slipped and fell, leaving scrape marks along the vehicle’s side.
In allowing Heath’s testimony to stand, Meyer noted that Sears had maintained Heath had no relevant qualifications to testify because he had no experience in accident reconstruction and was only a paid witness.
“While Heath has a mechanical engineering degree, his curriculum vitae does not show any formal biomechanical training,” Meyer wrote. “All the same, experts do not necessarily need a formal degree in a discipline to be qualified to testify about it.” Heath, the judge wrote, spent 20 years providing consulting engineering and expert testimony. That led Meyer to conclude he was qualified.
In his ruling, Meyer also noted a former Shinn Fu Company of America employee said the group investigated other incidents involving its jack stands.
The judge also wrote: “A jury could reasonably find that defendants consciously ignored the jack stand’s risks.”
Howard Riefs, Sears’ director of corporate communications, did not respond to a request for comment Monday.
Representing Klorczyk’s family are: Kaitlin Canty, Bryan Orticelli and Paul Williams of Day Pitney; and Howard Edinburgh and Michael Gallub of Herzfeld & Rubin. Canty did not get back with a comment by press time. Williams, Edinburgh and Gallub declined to comment and Orticelli did not respond to a request for comment.