Negligence Lawsuit Seeking Economic Damages After Plaintiff's Truck Caught Fire*

Case Summary:

This is a review of a negligence lawsuit involving a plaintiff who contended he purchased a defective electric winch for his truck. The malfunctioning winch had caught fire, and this fire eventually destroyed the truck and all its contents.

The plaintiff approached the company that sold him the winch seeking compensation for the winch, the truck, and the truck's contents. The company, in turn, had denied any liability and pointed to a clause in the purchase agreement absolving them from any damages caused by the winch.

The plaintiff held that the company was still liable and filed a negligence lawsuit against them seeking damages.

Statement of Facts...

Adrian Ark was an electrical contractor who as part of his work needed a truck to move his equipment to and from worksites. Recently, he had decided to purchase a new three-quarter-ton pickup utility truck from Rand Motors, Inc.

After both parties agreed on a price of $34,000, Rand drew up a Contract for Sale which Ark signed. The Contract was only for the sale of the truck. At or about the time of the sale, Ark decided to purchase an "aftermarket" light bar as well as an aftermarket electric winch.

Although the purchase of the light bar and winch was made concurrently with the sale of the truck, both products were sold by Rand to Ark separately. Each product came with a separate invoice and warranty.

Ark completed the transactions and agreed to take delivery of his new truck 48 hours later. The additional time was required for Rand to install the light bar and the electric winch. Ark took delivery of the truck without complaint.

Three days later, while he was working at a construction site, Ark needed to use the truck's winch to remove a tree. The tree was successfully removed and Ark moved to a different location to begin wiring an electric relay box. After working for a short time, he suddenly heard several workers calling his name. When he turned to acknowledge them, he saw his truck was fully engulfed by a fire.

The Police and Fire Department were called, and they quickly arrived and extinguished the fire. Regrettably Ark's truck was already destroyed. It was burned almost beyond recognition. The truck was totally inoperable and now considered to be only of salvage value.

The fire department was able to discern the fire was caused when the truck's winch overheated and made contact with rags Ark often left in the rear of his truck. Ark used the rags to clean filings and grease which normally accumulated when he drilled areas where he installed wiring.

Within hours Ark contacted Rand's Sales Manager. Ark was noticeably upset. He explained what happened and told the manager the truck and all his work tools were destroyed by the fire. Ark demanded reimbursement for the truck's purchase price and his tools.

The truck, tools and their replacement amounts were:

  • The Truck $34,000
  • Electric Winch $1,200
  • Light Pole $650
  • Bench Saw $3,500
  • Aluminum Ladders $400
  • Various Tools $3,000

The Sales Manager contacted the owner of the dealership and told him about his conversation with Ark and the demands Ark made. The owner referred the matter to his attorneys who in turn contacted Ark.

On behalf of Rand, the attorneys denied responsibility for Ark's losses. They referred him to the invoices which were given to him at the time of the sale of the light bar and the electric winch. Specifically the attorneys referred to the language at the bottom of the electric winch's invoice. It read in part:

This Winch Item No. 2256 is to be used for the purposes set out above. The manufacturer of this product warranties the product to work as intended. If in the event the product does not perform as intended, the manufacturer disclaims responsibility for any events which may occur in the event the product fails.

In the event the product malfunctions, the manufacturer agrees to be responsible only for the replacement cost of the product, and not for any ancillary damage the failure of the product might be alleged to have caused.

Ark, not satisfied with Rand's answer, hired an attorney and filed a negligence lawsuit.

The Negligence Lawsuit...

In his lawsuit Ark contended he purchased the electric winch from Rand. As a result, Ark contended, Rand should bear responsibility and liability for the malfunction of the winch, the resulting fire, and the damages to the truck and its contents.

Rand countered by contending they were not the manufacturer of the product and could therefore not be responsible under the theory of product liability.

Also, Rand contended, even if the Court found Rand responsible, Rand would only be subject to the terms of the warranty on the Invoice issued by the manufacturer. At worst, Rand argued, they only had to compensate Ark for the cost of a new electric winch.


After reviewing the admitted evidence and hearing the arguments of counsel, the Court ruled as follows:

"This negligence lawsuit case involves two theories. The first might be based on Contract Sale, and the other on Product Liability. This Court has been asked to determine whether the Plaintiff should be permitted to seek compensation for his damages from Rand.

After an examination of the controlling written documents related to the sale of the truck and the electric winch, we identified two separate but enforceable agreements:

The first is the Contract of Sale for the truck made between the Plaintiff and the Defendant. The 'four corners' of the Contract included the sale of the truck to the Plaintiff but not the electric winch.

Next is the Invoice for the electric winch. We find to be true the winch was sold by the Defendant to the Plaintiff. In that regard we do find the Defendant liable to the Plaintiff for specific damages. We must then though look to the controlling language in the Invoice for the electric winch made out to the Plaintiff.

The controlling language in the Invoice contains a Disclaimer of Responsibility for the failure of the product to function in the manner it was intended. The Invoice specifically disclaims any 'ancillary damage' the failure of the electric winch might be said to have caused.

In finding the Defendant liable for failure of the electric winch, we also find the Defendant subject to the terms of the Invoice's Disclaimer. Inasmuch as the Invoice offers only the replacement cost of the product we find the Defendant and the Plaintiff to be subject to those same obligations. We do not agree with the Plaintiff's theory of negligence.

We therefore hold for the Plaintiff only in the amount of the Electric Winch's replacement cost of $1,200."

Important Points...

  • This negligence lawsuit is an excellent example of the finite difference which sometimes exists between Product Liability and Contract law. Although the plight of the truck owner is regrettable, the Court bound Rand and Ark to the "four corners" of the Contract for the Sale of the truck and the separate Invoice for the electric winch.

    For the Courts not to be bound by the written agreements between the 2 parties it would leave each contested agreement open to the Court's interpretation. As a result, the written agreements between parties would be undermined.

  • The long standing "Caveat Emptor" still applies today. "Caveat Emptor" is Latin for "Buyer Beware". When considering the purchase of a product it is vital the buyer be aware of the "disclaiming language" in the Invoice or Contract of Sale. The Courts will almost always rely upon that which is in written form between the buyer and the seller.

*This case example is for educational purposes only. It is based on actual events although names have been changed to protect those involved. Any resemblance to real persons or entities is purely coincidental.

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