On June 21, 2012, the Eleventh Circuit affirmed the grant of summary judgment in favor of the defendants in Farias v. Mr. Heater, Inc., No. 1:09-cv-23789-JLK, 2012 WL 2354369 (11th Cir. June 21, 2012). In Farias, the plaintiff alleged that the defendants negligently failed to warn her of the danger that could result from the indoor use of two propane gas-fired infra-red portable heaters. The plaintiff used the portable heaters inside her home, failed to close the valve on one of the propane gas tanks, and then went to sleep. The resulting fire caused approximately $300,000 in damages. According to the plaintiff, the heaters, manufactured by Enerco Group, Inc. and Mr. Heater, Inc., and sold at Home Depot, contained inadequate warnings because such warnings were ambiguous and not provided in Spanish. Ruling on the defendants’ motion for summary judgment, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida held that defendants were not required under Florida law to provide the warnings in Spanish, and that, as a matter of law, the English-language warnings, instructions and graphic depictions provided with the heaters were adequate to warn consumers of the dangers of indoor use.
On appeal, the plaintiff argued that the English-language warnings and graphic depictions were “contradictory, inaccurate and ambiguous” as to whether the heaters posed a fire hazard if used indoors. In light of such alleged ambiguity, the plaintiff argued that the district court erred in finding the warnings adequate as a matter of law. Instead, plaintiff contended that the adequacy of the Mr. Heater warnings should be determined by a jury.
In response, the Eleventh Circuit highlighted numerous instructions and warnings which stated that the heaters were solely intended for use outdoors (“This heater is recommended for outdoor use only”) and specifically not intended for use inside plaintiff’s home (“Not designed for living areas or small tightly enclosed space,” “Not for home or recreational vehicle use,” “Never attempt to operate the heater inside any vehicle, camper or enclosure”). Further, the court cited warnings that gave notice to consumers that the heaters should never be operated while sleeping, and that the “misuse of the heaters runs a serious risk of not only fire, but explosions, asphyxiation, carbon monoxide poisoning, electrical shock, and personal injury, loss of life and property damage.” Based on its findings, the Eleventh Circuit held that the warnings were “of such intensity as to cause a reasonable man to exercise for his own safety caution commensurate with the potential danger” of the fire that occurred due to plaintiff’s misuse of the heater.
The appeals court also was not persuaded by plaintiff’s argument that the facts of her case were similar to those in Stanley Industries Inc. v. W.M. Barr & Co., 784 F. Supp. 1570 (S.D. Fla. 1992). In Stanley Industries, the district court ruled that because the defendants marketed the product “in the Hispanic media” and that given “the pervasive presence of foreign-tongued individuals in the Miami workforce,” the question of whether a warning required language other than English to be adequate was one for the jury to determine. In Farias, the Eleventh Circuit found that the plaintiff produced no evidence that the defendants marketed the heater to Spanish speaking customers through the Hispanic media. Moreover, the circuit court found that Home Depot’s recent policy requiring its vendors to use bilingual packaging was not evidence of such targeted marketing.