Hughes v. Magic Chef, Inc.
288 N.W.2d 542 (Iowa 1980)
Hughes' owned Magic Chef gas
stove. When he refilled it, he didn't relight all the pilot lights. Two
days later Hughes was injured in a massive propane explosion caused by the
Hughes sued Magic Chef for product
Magic Chef argued that
Hughes had assumed the risk and
was injured because he misused
the product by not relighting the pilot lights. It wasn't their fault
that Hughes didn't follow the instructions..
Hughes argued that misuse is only a defense when the product is used in
a manner the defendant could not reasonably foresee. But it was
foreseeable that someone wouldn't relight all three pilot lights.
Misuse is generally for things that a manufacturer
wouldn't figure a reasonable person would do with their product. For
example, if Hughes was using a propane tank for target practice, it
would be misuse and Magic
Chef couldn't be held liable for not making the tank bullet-proof.
However, refilling a tank and not relighting the pilot lights is the
sort of thing you might reasonably expect to happen.
Hughes also argued that assumption
of risk is only a defense when the
plaintiff voluntarily and unreasonably proceeded to encounter a known
danger. Hughes didn't know that the stove might explode.
Assumption of risk is generally used for things like people who
work on a bomb squad who are very aware that defusing bombs is
dangerous. Most people would not say that refilling a BBQ grill was a
The Trial Court found for
Magic Chef. Hughes appealed.
The Appellate Court affirmed.
The Iowa Supreme Court
reversed and ordered a new trial.
The Iowa Supreme Court found
that misuse is not an affirmative
defense, instead it is a component of whether the accident was foreseeable.
The Court said that the
Trial Court erred because they asked the jury to consider what Hughes
knew or ought to have known, but that's irrelevant. The real question was
what Magic Chef should have foreseen.
On retrial, Hughes would
have to prove that it was reasonably foreseeable that a pilot light might
not be lit, and that the stove was unreasonably dangerous if a pilot
light was left unlit. Hughes' specific actions with regards to his stove
are not relevant in a strict liability case such as this.
Basically, this case said that
if a person doesn't follow the instructions, or makes a mistake in using
the product, that doesn't immunize the product manufacturer from product
liability. If it is reasonably
foreseeable that a person could make those mistakes when using the
product, then the manufacturer is still liable.
However, they would not be
liable if the purchaser is doing crazy things with the product that a
manufacturer couldn't expect a reasonable person to do.