In Yuen Pui Man Ellen v. Majestic Furniture & Interior Design Limited(DCPI1960/2011), the Plaintiff purchased certain made-to-measure furniture from a renowned interior design company. The furniture turned out to emit toxic fumes at a high level and did not correspond with the sale description. Apart from seeking a refund of the purchase price of the furniture, the Plaintiff also brought a personal injury claim on the ground that the toxins emitted by the furniture affected her health.
In July 2008, the Plaintiff visited the Defendant’s store with a view to buying made-to-measure wooden household furniture. The salesmen who attended to her referred to newspapers clippings reporting that most furniture sold in Hong Kong would contain or be contaminated by toxins harmful to humans. She was assured this problem could be avoided if she purchased furniture from them. The salesmen also emphasised that their furniture was made of E-1 grade timber and toxin-free plywood from Indonesia, which emit toxins less than 0.1 ppm or smaller than 8 mg per 100 g, which would not affect human health. The Plaintiff relied on this representation and purchased the furniture.
After the furniture was delivered to the Plaintif’s residence in October 2008, she discovered that the representations made by the Defendant’s salesmen were false. Tests conducted showed that the furniture contained extremely high levels of formaldehyde and total Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC) beyond the acceptable level. The expert recommended removal of the furniture.
The Plaintiff’s Claim
The Plaintiff claimed that due to exposure to the toxins emitted from the furniture, she started to have allergic symptoms in the eyes, throat, nose, lung and skin. The symptoms, such as coughing, wheezing, chest pains and bronchitis, would recur when she was exposed to fumes and odours.
While the Defendant disputed the Plaintiff’s claim all along, it did not adduce any expert evidence on liability or quantum. The Court found that the Defendant practically abandoned its defence and the Court decided the case based on the Plaintiff’s evidence.
The Court found the Plaintiff to be an honest and credible witness and accepted her evidence in its entirety. It was held that:
- The Defendant was in breach of contract and the Plaintiff was entitled to a refund of the purchase price;
- The Defendant was liable for the personal injury suffered by the Plaintiff as a result of the exposure to toxins emitted from the furniture;
- Apart from the usual heads of damages of PSLA and loss of earning capacity, the Court also allowed the Plaintiff’s claim for expenses for storage of her personal belongings and the furniture under the head of special damages.
While retailers are usually eager to highlight the quality of their products, it is crucial to have corresponding quality control in place to ensure that the products match their description and representations made to the consumers. With the ever increasing awareness in consumers’ rights, this case is another example of why it may be advisable for retailers or manufacturers to review their quality control systems and manage product defects in the supply chain. Reducing defects and errors is crucial as negative publicity surrounding unfavourable claims or litigation can hurt business and the brand. Companies should also look to product liability cover as part of their risk management strategy.