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Florida Portable Propane Heaters Had Sufficient Safety Warnings, Eleventh Circuit Rules

360px-ColdCatHeaterComfort.jpgThe Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals recently upheld a district court’s grant of summary judgment to the defendants in a products liability claim. The product in question, a propane-fired portable heater, allegedly caused the plaintiff’s house to catch fire when she used it indoors. At issue was whether the warnings included with the product were legally sufficient to notify plaintiff of the dangers of indoor use of the heater, particularly since the warnings were written in English in a largely-Spanish-speaking area of Miami. The district court, in granting summary judgment for the defendants, held that the warning met Florida’s standard for accuracy and clarity, despite any language barriers.

Plaintiff Lilybet Farias, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Cuba who primarily speaks Spanish, purchased two “propane gas-fired infra-red portable heaters” from Home Depot. She claimed that she used the heaters inside her house, not knowing of the danger of fire because she could not read the English-language instructions. On the night of February 9, 2009, she reportedly left a heater on and failed to close a valve on a gas tank. Her home caught fire that night. She claimed the damages equalled around $300,000. She sued the manufacturers of the heater, Enerco Group, Inc. and Mr. Heater, Inc., as well as Home Depot, in state court in Miami-Dade County on November 17, 2009. She alleged negligence and strict liability for failing to warn of a product defect against the three defendants.

The defendants removed the case to federal court that December based on diversity jurisdiction. Farias is a resident of Florida, while both Enerco and Mr. Heater have principal places of business in Ohio. Home Depot is a Delaware corporation. The U.S. District Court in Miami granted the defendants’ motion for summary judgment on November 19, 2010, finding that her claims of inadequate warning were barred as a matter of law.

Florida law bars recovery for product liability claims when the plaintiff fails to follow written warnings. Much of plaintiff’s case was based on the fact that the product warnings were only available in English, not Spanish. She argued that the question of the warning’s adequacy was for the jury to decide, citing a 1992 Florida federal district court case, Stanley Industries, Inc. v. W.M. Barr & Co., Inc. That case held that products specifically marketed to Miami’s Spanish-speaking communities had to have bilingual written warnings.

In this case, however, the court concluded that the defendants did not owe a duty to provide bilingual instructions. The decision was based, in part, on the court’s conclusion that the plaintiff made little effort to understand the English instructions. The court also found that the defendants did not “purposefully direct [a] sales pitch” to Spanish-speaking communities, and that Stanley Industries was therefore inapplicable. The Eleventh Circuit agreed with the trial court’s ruling and affirmed its order.

The South Florida products liability attorneys at Cohn & Smith help people who have suffered injury due to dangerous or defective products to recover compensation for their damages. To schedule a free and confidential consultation with one of our lawyers, contact us today online, at 954 431 8100, or at 305 624 9186.

Web Resources:

Complaint for Damages (PDF), Farias v. Mr. Heater, Inc., et al, Circuit Court, Eleventh Judicial Circuit, Miami-Dade County, Florida, November 17, 2009
Order Granting Defendants’ Motion for Summary Judgment (PDF), Farias v. Mr. Heater, Inc., et al, U.S. District Court, Southern District of Florida, Miami Division, November 19, 2010
Opinion (PDF), Farias v. Mr. Heater, Inc., et al, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, June 21, 2012

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Photo credit: ‘ColdCatHeaterComfort’ by Raould (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

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