Tuesday, December 13, 2022

Strict Liability Failure to Warn Claims Fail Where Plaintiffs Did Not Read Warnings

In the case of Mains v. The Sherwin-Williams Co., 5:20-CV-00112 (E.D. Pa. Nov. 10, 2022 Gallagher, J.), the Eastern District Court of Pennsylvania addressed the validity of a warning defect theory put forth by a Plaintiff in a products liability case.

This matter arose out of an incident during which the Plaintiff's deck caught on fire.  The Plaintiffs alleged that the product they used to stain their deck self-heated and caused a fire on their property.  More specifically, the Plaintiff's alleged that they placed application materials with the product left on it on the lawn next to the dect after which those items spontaneously caught fire.   

The court ruled that the Plaintiff’s warning defect theory failed as a matter of law because the Plaintiff admitted in this case that they never even read the warning label on the Defendant’s product.

The court therefore found that an unread warning could not be a cause of an injury in a products liability claim. 

The court also noted that the Plaintiff did not show any way that a “reminder warning” might have prevented the accident.

In this particular matter, the court also found that the Plaintiff’s failure to warn claim was also preempted by the Hazardous Substances Act because that Act did not require the Defendant to include a spontaneous combusting warning on the label as a principal hazard.

The court also confirmed that, in any event, the warning label on the product contained the words 'DANGER' and 'COMBUSTIBLE,' and further informed users of the product that 'rags, steel wool, other waste soaked with this product...may catch fire if impropertly discarded.'  Users were advised to discard such waste in a sealed water filled metal container.     

The court additionally noted that the Plaintiff was unable to establish any design or manufacturing defect because the Plaintiff’s lacked any expert evidence that the product, whether it was defective or not, actually caused the fire that injured them.

The court confirmed that the Plaintiff did not identify a cause and origin expert with regards to the fire in question. It was additionally held that lay opinion testimony is speculative and no substitute for expert fire causation testimony, particularly where there were possible alternative origins for the fire in this case. The court also noted that scientific knowledge about the chemical components of the product and their corresponding combustibility was beyond the understanding of a layperson and, therefore, required the testimony of an expert.

The court also found that the Plaintiff could not rely upon a malfunction theory of liability to establish an alleged manufacturing defect because the Plaintiffs did not have the expert testimony necessary to eliminate other possible causes.

The court also found that the Plaintiff’s implied warranty of merchantability claim was similar to a strict liability claim and that this implied warranty of merchantability claim failed because the Plaintiffs were not able to establish a product defect.

Anyone wishing to review a copy of this decision may click this LINK.  The Court's companion Order can be viewed HERE.

I thank Attorney James M. Beck of the Philadelphia office of the Reed Smith law firm for bringing this case to my attention.

Source of Image:  Photo by Pontius Wellgraf on www. Pexels.com.

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