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AmFam Insurance v. Sunvest Solar, Inc. et al.

American Family Mutual Insurance Company v. Sunvest Solar, Inc. et al. 2022AP408 (Dec. 13, 2023)

In 2017, the roof of a building caught fire underneath a solar-panel array for which Sunvest Solar, Inc. was the general contractor during installation. American Family Mutual Insurance Company, which insured the damaged property, filed a strict product liability claim against Sunvest, alleging both a design defect and a failure to warn. That claim was dismissed by the circuit court on summary judgment based on the court’s conclusion that the opinions of American Family’s electrical engineer were insufficient to create a triable issue on certain elements of American Family’s cause of action. On appeal, American Family argued its expert’s opinions were, in fact, sufficient to establish that the risk of rodent damage to the solar-panel array was foreseeable and rendered the array unreasonably dangerous. American Family also argued the expert’s report establishes that there were reasonable alternative designs that would have rendered the array reasonably safe. The Court of Appeals agreed, reversed, and remanded.

In support of their product liability claim, American Family retained electrical engineer Robert Neary to testify as to his opinions about the cause of the fire. Neary was tasked with determining whether the risk of rodent damage should have been known during the panel design and installation phases. He was also asked to opine as to whether, if that risk was known, the installation contractor should have used an alternative design or method that could have eliminated that risk. Neary first opined that rodent damage to internal and exterior wiring had been a well-known problem in the electrical industry for decades, well before the design and installation of the subject solar array. He also concluded that modifications to the design or materials used were available to prevent rodent damage to the wiring from causing a fire.

Ultimately, the Court of Appeals found that Neary’s opinions were sufficient to create a triable issue regarding (1) the foreseeability of the risk of harm to the solar-panel array due to rodent damage, (2) the unreasonably dangerous nature of the array, and (3) a reasonable alternative design. Interestingly, while rejecting Sunvest’s arguments, the Court of Appeals found that expert testimony was not necessary to support American Family’s failure to warn claim. In so holding, the Court of Appeals found that a reasonable juror could infer that Sunvest had a duty to warn based on Neary’s other opinions. The Court of Appeals reversed the grant of summary judgment in favor of Sunvest and remanded.

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