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Manufacturer Has No “Automatic” Duty To Provide Bilingual Warnings

Product Liability LawsuitThe Eleventh Circuit, in Farias v. Mr. Heater, et al., 2012 WL 2354359, No.11-10405 (June 21, 2012), held that the defendant manufacturer of a propane gas heater in a product liability lawsuit that caused a home fire after being improperly used by the plaintiff indoors was not required to include Spanish language warnings for its heaters.

The case involved a plaintiff who purchased two infra-red portable heaters from Home Depot, manufactured by Enerco and Mr. Heater.  According to the plaintiff, because the warnings were inadequate, as they were only in English, she used the two propane heaters indoors which led to her home catching fire, causing $300,000 in damages. However, despite the plaintiff’s claims as to the adequacy of the warnings, the district court held as a matter of law that the warnings were in fact adequate.

Additionally, despite alleging in her complaint and summary judgment arguments that defendant manufacturers had a duty under Florida law to provide Spanish language warnings, the plaintiff “did not challenge the district court’s conclusion that Florida law does not automatically impose a duty to provide bilingual warnings on consumer products.”

Instead, plaintiff presented two issues for appeal: 1.) “the district court erred in concluding that the English-language written warnings and graphic depictions, which were provided, can be deemed ‘adequate’ as a matter of law because she asserts they are inherently contradictory, inaccurate and ambiguous”, 2.) the lack of bilingual warnings was inadequate because the defendants’ marketing was directed towards the Hispanic community.

Regarding the first issue, the Eleventh Circuit held “[h]aving considered the totality of the written warnings and graphic depictions, we find that the Defendants adequately notified consumers of the ‘apparent potential harmful consequences’ of the indoor use of the [defendant’s] propane gas heater, including the risk of fire.”  The court was not persuaded that the picture illustrations and written warnings were ambiguous “as to whether the heater could be used inside a person’s home and whether the heater posed a fire hazard if used inside a person’s home.”  The warnings contained several references that the heater should not be used indoors and also warned of the risk of fire.

As to the second issue, the court was also unpersuaded by plaintiff’s arguments.  There was no evidence that the defendants “regularly and actively” marketed the heaters on Hispanic television or radio stations or Hispanic newspapers.  Prior Florida case law found a duty on the part of the manufacturer to provide bilingual warnings if such a circumstance in marketing and advertising was present.

First of all, it is a little unclear how the English warnings were “inherently contradictory, inaccurate and ambiguous” if they could not be understood in English—which would be the entire point of arguing that the warnings should be bilingual to begin with.  Second, the court upholds the district court’s decision that the warnings were adequate as a matter of law here, but this decision could easily be interpreted to be limited to the facts of this case.  While the court did NOT say there was a duty for a manufacturer to automatically include bilingual warnings, there may be circumstances where it would find such bilingual warnings necessary—particularly, where there is evidence that the product manufacturer directed its advertising and marketing at a particular ethnic community.

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