On June 21, 2012, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit issued its opinion in Farias v. Mr. Heater, Inc., Case No. 11-10405. The appeal was taken from the District Court's order granting the appellee-defendant's motion for summary judgment on plaintiff's strict liability and negligent failure to warn claims. The District ruled that the defendants were not required as a matter of Florida law to provide warnings in Spanish. The case arose from the appellant-plaintiff's, Lilybet Farias, use of two Mr. Heater brand infra-red portable propane heaters purchased at Home Depot that resulted in $300,000 worth of fire damage to her home. On the night of the accident, the Plaintiff attached propane tanks to the heaters before lighting them. She went to bed that evening but neglected to close the valve on one of the heaters.
Plaintiff's complaint named Cleveland-based manufacturers Mr. Heater, Inc. and Enerco Group Inc., as well as the distributor, Home Depot as defendants. Ms. Farias asserted that the Defendants negligently failed to warn her of the danger which could result from indoor use of the heaters. She blamed the fire in part on English-only instructions provided with the space heaters, which she could not read. Ms. Farias could speak English but not read it. She contended that the Defendants had a duty to provide the written warnings in Spanish because the product was marketed to a predominantly Hispanic demographic. She claimed that the written warnings and graphic depictions that came with the heaters were inherently contradictory, inaccurate and ambiguous. She believed the heaters could be used indoors because the illustrations on the box depicted the heaters being used inside of a warehouse.
The Defendants did not dispute that they had a duty to warn users of their product about the potential harmful consequences associated with the product. The contested issues were whether the warnings and instructions provided with the heaters were adequate as a matter of law and whether the district court erred in resolving the adequacy of the warnings as a matter of law as opposed to leaving it for the jury's determination.
The Eleventh Circuit affirmed summary judgment in favor of the Defendants, finding that the warnings provided with the product were accurate, clear and unambiguous. Viewed objectively, the Court found that the totality of the warnings — both the written warnings and graphic depictions — provided with the heaters made the potential harmful consequences of indoor use apparent and were of such intensity as to cause a reasonable person to exercise caution commensurate with the potential danger.
As to the adequacy of the warnings concerning outdoor use only, the surface of the product's box contained several warnings and operating instructions emphasizing outdoor use only. The box also included examples of the product's uses such as construction sites, auto and truck repair, outdoor jobs, recreation and poolside areas. The product's packaging also contained six photographs depicting appropriate uses of the heaters each labeled with the depicted use such as loading docks, new construction, warehouses, splitting woods, and patios. The instruction manual warned users: to read all instructions carefully; not to leave the heater unattended or in operation while sleeping; that carbon monoxide could cause death when using the heater in enclosed areas; that the heaters were not for home or recreational vehicle use; and never to operate the heater while sleeping. The Court found there were multiple warnings advising against indoor use and those warnings adequately conveyed the potential consequences, including death and fire, associated with misuse of the product.
The Court refused to follow a 1992 decision, Stanley Industries, Inc. v. W.M. Barr & Co., 784 F. Supp. 1570 (S.D. Fla. 1992), involving the use of rags drenched in linseed oil with English-only warnings used by two Spanish-speaking workers, which resulted in a fire. In that case, the District Court concluded that "given 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." The Eleventh Circuit found that, unlike in Farias, the manufacturer and distributors in Stanley Industries regularly and actively engaged in general marketing through Hispanic mediums such as television, radio, and newspapers. Ms. Farias failed to introduce any evidence that the Defendants "specifically marketed" the heaters in any way to Spanish-speaking customers through the use of Hispanic media as to make the Stanley Industries holding applicable. As such, there was no genuine issue of material fact and the district court's granting of summary judgment was affirmed.
While the precedential weight of Stanley Industries remains intact following the Eleventh Circuit's ruling, it has certainly been narrowed. Applying the Court's logic, if a manufacturer or distributor does not have a "targeted marketing campaign . . . through predominantly Hispanic media outlets" in Florida, then there would be no duty on the manufacturer or distributor to warn in Spanish. The role of a manufacturer's marketing efforts in Florida, especially in this media-influenced society, becomes a tactical choice to be carefully considered.
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