In a unanimous decision released on June 21, 2012 the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals sanctioned the ability of trial courts to determine the adequacy of a warning label as a matter of law. See Farias v. Mr. Heater, Inc., 684 F.3d 1231, 1236 (11th Cir. 2012). The court also held that despite the fact that a manufacturer sells products to Spanish-speaking customers in South Florida, that the manufacturer was not required to provide Spanish-language warning labels. Id. This case is important because it will likely provide leverage for future manufacturers seeking summary judgment on the issue of whether a particular warning label was sufficient.
The plaintiff, Lilybet Farias, was a Home Depot customer who had purchased two propane gas-fired infra-red portable heaters manufactured by Enerco and Mr. Heater. Id. at 1233. Farias alleged that as a result of the heaters’ inadequate warnings, she mistakenly used the outdoor heaters inside her house, causing her house to catch fire in the middle of the night and causing approximately $300,000 in property damage. Id. On appeal, Farias’ main contention was that the trial court erred when it decided that the warning label was adequate as a matter of law. Id. Farias was adamant that the issue was one for the jury because it was a fact-specific question. Id. In opposition, the defendants urged the 11th Circuit to adopt an old Florida Supreme Court decision, Felix v. Hoffmann-LaRoche, Inc., 540 So. 2d 102 (Fla. 1989), that held that in certain rare circumstances, the adequacy of a warning label could be decided as a matter of law where the label was “accurate, clear, and unambiguous.” See Farias, 684 F.3d at 1233 (quoting Felix, 540 So. 2d at 105). Farias argued that because the warnings were only in English, that this alone meant that the warnings were not, as a matter of law, “accurate, clear, and unambiguous.” Id. at 1234. Farias contended that because the heaters were marketed to a Hispanic Miami community, that the manufacturer should be required to provide Spanish warnings. Id. at 1236. The adequacy of the English-only warnings then, Farias argued, must be a question of fact for the jury. Id.
The court began its discussion by explaining that the adequacy of a warning under Florida law is measured by the reasonable person standard and not whether a particular person would have subjectively appreciated the warned of danger. Id. Because the reasonable person standard is an objective test, the court opined that it could be decided as a matter of law, so long as the warnings met the Felix v. Hoffmann-LaRoche standard. Id. In reviewing the multiple warnings that accompanied the heater, the court held that while the packaging did not specifically say that the heater could not be used inside a house, the warnings were adequate because they repeatedly cautioned that the heater (1) must be used in a “well-ventilated area”; (2) could not be used “inside any vehicle, camper, or enclosure”; and (3) should not be left on while sleeping. Id. at 1235. The court ultimately determined that these warnings, while indirect, could be adequate as a matter of law. Id. at 1235-36.
The court next addressed whether English-only warnings were sufficient for a manufacturer in the Hispanic-rich Miami community. Id. at 1236. Farias argued that her case was factually indistinguishable from Stanley Industries, Inc. v. W.M. Barr & Co., 784 F. Supp. 1570, 1576 (S.D. Fla. 1992), where the district court concluded that “[g]iven the advertising of defendants’ product in the Hispanic media and the pervasive presence of foreign-tongued individuals in the Miami workforce, it is for the jury to decide whether a warning, to be adequate, must contain language other than English or pictorial warning symbols.” Farias, 684 F.3d at 1233 (quoting Stanley, 784 F. Supp. at 1576). The 11th Circuit distinguished Stanley by stating that Farias had not put on any evidence that any of the defendants had specifically targeted the Hispanic community, like the defendants had in Stanley. Id. at 1236.
Legal Implications for Manufacturers, Distributors and Retail Clients
While the full impact of the 11th Circuit decision is unknown at this time, the case’s dicta seems like a clear warning—no pun intended—that if a company is marketing to and targeting a Hispanic population, that it could subject itself to additional liability by failing to include Spanish-language warnings. At the same time, the decision provides valuable leverage for companies who are fighting “failure to warn” cases because the 11th Circuit made clear that the adequacy of a warning can be decided as a matter of law even if the warning only indirectly prohibited the damage-causing activity.