In Glorvigen v. Cirrus Design Corporation,  __ N.W.2d __, 2012 WL 2913203 (Minn., July 18, 2012), the Minnesota Supreme Court held in a 4 to 2 opinion that the duty to warn under Minnesota product liability law does not include a tort duty to provide training to the user.

In December, 2003, Gary Prokup purchased a Cirrus SR22 light aircraft.  Cirrus offered a two day new owner training program to purchasers as part of the price of the aircraft.  Prokup registered for and took the training. 

On January 18, 2003 Prokup took off from Grand Rapids Michigan bound for St. Cloud, Minnesota with one passenger.  En route he inadvertently encountered instrument weather conditions and became spatially disoriented.  He lost control of the aircraft and crashed, killing himself and his passenger.  The estates of Prokup and the passenger brought wrongful death actions against Cirrus based on strict liability and negligence, including allegations of negligence in the transition training provided to Prokup. 

At trial there was conflicting evidence as to whether Prokup received the portion of the transition training syllabus on use of the aircraft autopilot to recover from inadvertent entry from visual to instrument flight conditions.  The jury found Cirrus and UNDAF 75% negligent and Prokup 25% negligent and awarded $7.4 million damages to the Glorvigen estate and $12 million to the Prokup estate.  Cirrus appealed to the Minnesota Court of Appeals, which reversed, and the Minnesota Supreme Court granted review.

Plaintiffs argued on appeal that Cirrus (1) had a duty as a product supplier and manufacturer to give adequate instruction in the safe use of its aircraft in tort and (2) assumed the duty to provide the instruction specified in the transition training, and that under either theory Cirrus breached its duty by failing to provide training on recovery from inadvertent entry into instrument conditions.

The Court held that Cirrus’s duty to warn did not require it to provide training.  “The duty to warn has never before required a supplier or manufacturer to provide training, only accurate and thorough instructions on the safe use of the product, as Cirrus has done here.” It held that Cirrus adequately discharged its duty to warn by providing written instructions in the aircraft and autopilot handbooks on recovery from inadvertent instrument entry, and stated that the appellants cited no case in which a supplier or manufacturer was obligated to provide training to discharge its duty to warn. 2013 WL 2913203 at *10.  It further held that Cirrus’s obligation to provide training arose from the sale contract, and therefore could not be enforced in tort under Minnesota law. 2013 WL 2913203 at *11-12. 

The dissent asserted that the jury found that Cirrus’s written materials provided an inadequate warning, and that the majority should not have disregarded the jury’s determination.  It further contended that under Minnesota law a party can assume a duty in tort through a contractual relationship where death or personal injury is involved.  2013 WL 2913203 at *13-14.

The ruling is clearly consistent with current case law holding that the duty to warn does not include a duty to train.  The plaintiffs in Glorvigen did not assert that the warnings provided were inadequate or incomplete other than by failing to include the promised training.  To date, no Court has held that the duty to warn includes a duty to train customers or users in the proper use of a product. 

The Glorvigen holding that a contractually assumed duty to train could not be enforced in tort is less settled.   The dissent cites Minnesota authorities for the proposition that claims for personal injury and damage other than economic loss arising from duties assumed in contractual and commercial settings may be cognizable in tort.  While State law varies on the interplay of tort and contract remedies. However, the economic loss doctrine as applied in most states allows recovery in tort for death, personal injury and property damage in tort, but not for loss or damage to the product itself for or failure of a product to perform as promised.

Product sales often include some form of training or product support; e.g., product stewardship and responsible care programs in the chemical industry.   Product sellers can seek to govern their obligations and liabilities under such programs by appropriate disclaimers and limitations, and by spelling out the requirements and obligations of the seller and the customer in such programs. However, absent an affirmative undertaking, the duty to warn does not include a duty to train product users.