A recent ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit in Suarez v. W.M. Barr & Co. held that while the trial court was right to grant summary judgment to the defendant on the “failure to warn” claim, the claims asserted on grounds of strict liability and negligence should be allowed to proceed.
Product liability cases can be complex and typically require a law firm with extensive experience and ample resources. Such claims can proceed on a number of legal theories, but each must meet very specific criteria. Although there are federal statutes governing the standards to which product makers and distributors are held, many of these cases are filed in state court and are based on state-level standards, which can vary by jurisdiction.
In general, manufacturers, distributors, and retailers can be liable for not providing adequate warnings on their products if a consumer suffers an injury as a result. In strict liability lawsuits (which allow companies to be liable for dangerous products, even if they did not act negligently), the question with a failure to warn claim is whether the risk of injury was obvious or unpredictable. There may also be questions of whether the product was used as intended or whether it was misused in a way that was predictable. If a product wasn’t being used as intended, the chances of a successful claim are reduced.
In the Suarez case, the plaintiff bought a one-gallon can of a chemical product known as “Goof Off” in order to help him remove the paint from the concrete floor of a basement in a building he owned. It’s advertised as an effective product to help remove dried latex paint and other materials from a variety of surfaces, including concrete. The main active ingredient in the product is acetone, which is extremely flammable and evaporates quickly when exposed at room temperature.
The container purchased by the plaintiff contained a number of warnings in both English and Spanish, including warnings that the product was extremely flammable and should be kept away from heat and all sources of ignition and that vapors could ignite or cause a flash fire. It also indicated that it should only be used with adequate ventilation. Users were also instructed that to remove stains from concrete, they should apply directly and agitate with a brush.
The plaintiff said he read most of the warnings, and he opened one window and two doors. However, he didn’t turn off pilot lights connected to water heaters and a furnace in a separate part of the basement. He then applied the product to the floor, let it sit, and spread it with his feet and a broom. While using the broom, a fire broke out, and the plaintiff suffered serious burn injuries on his head, face, neck, and hands.
The victim and his wife filed an injury lawsuit against the product maker for failure to warn and defective design under theories of both strict liability and negligence. The plaintiffs alleged the product was unreasonably dangerous, even when used in a foreseeable manner, and the company didn’t provide adequate warnings. Two expert witnesses were hired to help prove his case.
The district court granted summary judgment to the defense, finding the company had complied with statutory labeling requirements, the product was not unreasonably dangerous because ordinary consumers would expect that exposure to sparks or flames could cause a fire, and there was not enough evidence that the product failed to conform to industry standards or that there was any feasible alternative.
On appeal, the Seventh Circuit affirmed in part and reversed in part. The justices did find the lower court rightly decided the failure to warn claim on summary judgment because the label adequately identified the main hazards and precautionary measures that had to be taken. However, the court reversed with regard to the defective design claims. In strict liability cases, consumers can show the product was unreasonably dangerous if the product failed to perform as an ordinary consumer would expect when used in a reasonably foreseeable way, or if they can show the product, when used in accordance with warning labels, still posed a serious risk of harm to consumers. That test was met here, the court held. The case has been remanded for further proceedings.
Contact the Carolina injury lawyers at the Lee Law Offices by calling 800-887-1965.
Suarez v. W.M. Barr & Co., Nov. 22, 2016, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit
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Smith v. Mahoney – Collateral Source Rule Weighed in Injury Lawsuit, Nov. 23, 2016, Winston-Salem Defective Product Attorney