[author: Janine Schwerter]
A recent product liability case will be useful in providing guidance to manufacturers and distributors on product warning labels and instructions.
Last week, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that general marketing to a non-English speaking population does not create a duty to provide bilingual warning labels or instructions, as a matter of law. On appeal, the Court affirmed summary judgment for the defendants, finding that the district court did not err in the following:
Resolving the question of the adequacy of the English warnings and instructions as a question of law, because they were objectively accurate, clear and unambiguous; and
Finding no question of fact for a jury, when the plaintiff did not demonstrate that the defendants regularly and actively targeted the Spanish speaking population through Hispanic media outlets.
The plaintiff, a Spanish-speaking resident of Miami, Florida, purchased two propane gas-fired infra-red portable heaters from Home Depot, manufactured by Enerco and Mr. Heater. She used the portable heaters inside her home, and when she failed to close the valve on one of the gas tanks before going to sleep, her home caught on fire, causing approximately $300,000.00 in damages. She claims that the defendants failed to adequately warn her of the risk of using the gas tanks indoors. She brought suit against the defendants alleging strict products liability and negligent failure to warn. The defendants brought a motion for summary judgment, which was granted by the district court.
On appeal, the plaintiff argued that the adequacy of the warnings accompanying the product was a question of fact to be determined by a jury. She claimed that the pictures and visual graphics were inconsistent with the warnings, creating ambiguity. In addition, while conceding that Florida does not automatically impose a duty to provide bilingual warnings, she argued that because the defendants marketed the heaters to Miami’s Hispanic community, the question of providing an English-only warning was a question of fact for the jury.
The Court engaged in a two-part analysis to address the plaintiff’s claims. First, citing various warnings and instructions accompanying the products, the Court affirmed the district court’s finding that the English language warnings, instructions and pictures of the product being used outdoors adequately notified consumers of the potential harmful consequences of the indoor use of the gas heater, including the risk of fire. Additionally, the Court did not find ambiguity between the warnings and pictures of the product in use, noting that they all depicted use of the product in outdoor activities.
The Court also found that, notwithstanding Home Depot’s recently instituted policy for requiring its vendors to use bilingual packaging, there was no evidence that Home Depot specifically marketed Mr. Heater to Spanish-speaking customers primarily or pervasively through the use of Hispanic media outlets.
In products liability cases, the scope of a manufacturer or distributor’s duty to warn is not stationary or unvarying. As the marketplace changes, so too does the legal duty to provide adequate warnings and instruction in an environment where the definition of the word “adequacy” is routinely challenged. In this case, the Court upheld the clear and unambiguous English language warnings accompanying products sold in non-English speaking populations, absent a showing of pervasive marketing primarily and directly targeting the non-English speaking community. By clarifying the parameters in which bilingual warnings and/or instructions are warranted, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals provided more than adequate guidance for manufacturers and distributors of consumer goods.