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Eagle West Insurance Company v. Amtrol, Inc.

United States District Court, W.D. Washington, Seattle

September 19, 2017

AMTROL, INC., Defendant.



         This matter comes before the Court on Defendant Amtrol's motion for summary judgment (Dkt. No. 31). Plaintiff also asks the Court to strike exhibits presented in support of Defendant's motion. (Dkt. No. 38.) Having thoroughly considered the parties' briefing and the relevant record, the Court finds oral argument unnecessary and hereby DENIES Plaintiff's motion to strike and GRANTS in part and DENIES in part Defendant's motion for summary judgment for the reasons explained herein.

         I. BACKGROUND[1]

         On May 20, 2015, a leak occurred on the third floor of a condominium complex owned by Cypress Place Condominium Association (“Cypress Place”), causing water damage to multiple units in the complex. (Dkt. Nos. 1-1 at 3, 32-1 at 2.) The leak originated from a water expansion tank-the THERM-X-TROL Model No. ST-5-designed, manufactured, and sold by Defendant Amtrol, Inc. (“Amtrol”). (Dkt. Nos. 6 at 4, 31 at 2.) Water flow into the tank was controlled by a water pressure regulating valve manufactured, supplied, and distributed by Defendant Watts Regulator Co. (“Watts”). (Dkt. Nos. 1-1, 31 at 2.) Plaintiff Eagle West Insurance Company (“Eagle West”), subrogree of Cypress Place Condominium Owner's Association, brought a product liability claim against both Amtrol and Watts for damages resulting from the leak.[2] (Dkt. No. 1-1.)

         Water expansion tanks are paired with hot water heaters in domestic and commercial water systems to manage routine changes in pressure and volume resulting from use and temperature change. (Dkt. No. 32-1 at 18.) Expansion tanks contain a sealed-in flexible rubber bladder that separates the internal chamber into water and air sides. When thermal expansion occurs, the bladder compresses into the air side to provide space for increased water volume. (Dkt. No. 31-1 at 21.) The air side of the tank is pre-pressurized to match domestic water pressure and balance expansion, so when pressure decreases, the bladder relaxes. (Dkt. No. 32 at 3.) In systems like the one at Cypress Place, increased water pressure cannot be forced back into the municipal supply line and must be absorbed by the internal system; without an expansion tank or other pressure relief mechanism, a water heater and plumbing system risk unsafe pressure buildup. Id. at 20.

         (IMAGE OMITTED)

         Amtrol manufactures expansion tanks in a variety of sizes and with a variety of features. Tanks are sized according to the size and temperature setting of the attached hot water tank and system pressure. (Dkt. No. 31 at 3.) The subject ST-5 tank is the smallest model and does not come with features offered on more expensive tanks, such as American Society of Mechanical Engineers (“ASME”) certification or a sight glass. (Dkt. No. 31 at 3; Dkt. No. 42 at 11.) The ST-5 is indicated for systems with a 50 gal tank and static supply pressure of 60 psi and has a maximum working pressure of 150 psi. (Dkt. No. 32-1 at 14.) The tank is shipped with a pre-charge in the air side of the tank of 40 psi, which product instructions state must be adjusted at installation to match the system's static water pressure. (Id. at 4, 14.) Water pressure at Cypress Place was regulated by a Watts automated control valve (“ACV”). (Dkt. No. 32-1 at 5.) The valve was set to maintain a maximum pressure of 80 psi, but Plaintiff's expert, Kent Engineering (“Kent”), testified that routine pressure on the third floor was between 45 and 60 psi. (Dkt. Nos. 32-1 at 8, 44 at 2.) Kent measured water pressure at the third floor on the day of the leak at 90 and 98 psi. Id. At no point in Kent's investigation were pressures measured to be over 123 psi. (Id.)

         On December 21, 2015, Kent produced a preliminary opinion attributing the tank rupture to an AVC malfunction that allowed over pressurization in the water system. (Dkt. No. 32-1 at 2, 5.) Kent initially reported that excess pressure caused the internal bladder in the Amtrol tank to develop a leak, permitting water to enter and corrode the air side of the tank. Id. Kent issued a follow-up report on June 21, 2017, revising its opinion after further laboratory testing of the valve and tank. (Dkt. No. 32-1.) The new report concluded that tank failure was not, in fact, caused by over pressurization in the water system. Id. Rather, Kent believed that internal corrosion on the bare air side of the tank chamber began a chain reaction that led the tank to rupture. Air added at installation to balance tank pressure introduced humidity into the air side of the tank, which condensated on the internal tank wall, causing corrosion. The corrosion produced a rough surface at the point of contact with the rubber bladder, eroding the bladder and leading the bladder and seal to fail. Water was then able to flow freely into the tank's air side, causing further corrosion, and ultimately, tank rupture. (Dkt. No. 32-1 at 9). Based on these findings, Plaintiff's expert opined that the Amtrol ST-5 tank was defectively designed in that it failed to prevent this failure at multiple points. (Dkt. No. 32-1 at 11.)

         Plaintiff brought a product liability claim against Defendants Amtrol and Watts alleging the valve and tank were “designed, manufactured and sold . . . in a defective and unreasonably dangerous condition.” (Dkt. No. 1-1.) Defendant Watts was dismissed from this action. (Dkt. No. 18.) Defendant Amtrol now moves for summary judgement on Plaintiff's product liability claims. (Dkt. No. 31.)


         A. Summary Judgement Standard

         The Court shall grant summary judgment if the moving party demonstrates that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). In making such a determination, the Court views the facts and justifiable inferences to be drawn therefrom in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 255. The moving party bears the initial burden to show the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). The opposing party must then “come forward with ‘specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.'” Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986) (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e)). Material facts are those that may affect the outcome of the case, and a dispute about a material fact is genuine if there is sufficient evidence for a reasonable jury to return a verdict for the non-moving party. Id. at 248-49. Conclusory, non-specific statements in affidavits are not sufficient, and “missing facts” will not be “presumed.” Lujan v. Nat'l Wildlife Fed'n, 497 U.S. 871, 888-89 (1990). Ultimately, summary judgment is appropriate against a party who “fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial.” Celotex Corp., 477 U.S. at 324.

         B. Plaintiff's Motion to Strike

         As an initial matter, Plaintiff asserts that all exhibits supporting Defendant's summary judgment motion should be stricken because they are not appropriately authenticated. (Dkt. No. 38.) In reply, Defendant asks the Court to sanction Plaintiff for presenting this “frivolous” argument. (Dkt. No. 42 at 3.)

         A party is not required to produce evidence supporting a motion for summary judgment in a form that would be admissible at trial, as long as it can explain the anticipated admissible form of the evidence. Block v. City of Los Angeles, 253 F.3d 410, 418-19 (9th Cir. 2001); see Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c)(2) commentary to 2010 amendment; see also Fraser v. Goodale, 342 F.3d 1032, 1036 (9th Cir. 2003). The Court is satisfied with Defendant's explanation of how the disputed evidence could be authenticated at trial. (See Dkt. No. 42 at 2-3.)

         The Court therefore DENIES Plaintiff's motion to strike Defendant's exhibits. (Dkt. No. 38). The Court does not find sanctions appropriate here.

         C. Washington Product Liability Act

         The Court has diversity jurisdiction over this matter pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1332, and as such must apply Washington law. Snead v. Metro Prop & Cas. Ins. Co., 237 F.3d 1080, 1090 (9th Cir. 2001). Plaintiff's claim arises under the Washington Product Liability Act (“WPLA”), the exclusive remedy for product liability claims in Washington. Washington Water Power Co. v. Graybar Elec. Co., 774 P.2d 1199, 1203-04 (Wash. 1989). The WPLA imposes liability on a manufacturer for a claimant's harm proximately caused by a product “not reasonably safe as designed” (“defective design”) or “not reasonably safe because adequate warnings or instructions were not provided” (“failure to warn”). Wash. Rev. Code § 7.72.030(1). A plaintiff can establish liability for defective design ...

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