Court of Appeals Explores Obvious Danger Doctrine

The 5th Circuit last week affirmed a grant of summary judgment to defendants in a case of a plaintiff allegedly injured when he used a gasoline-soaked rag to start a diesel engine while wearing a polyester and cotton uniform. Spears v. Cintas Sales Corp., No. 09-30750 (5th Cir., 2/28/11).

At the time of his accident, Spears was employed as the shop foreman for Apeck Construction, Inc., and was the head mechanic in charge of servicing and repairing equipment used by Apeck in its business. While performing his duties, Spears wore a Cintas uniform that Apeck had purchased for him. The uniform was 65% polyester and 35% cotton.The agreement between Apeck and Cintas specified that the garments were not flame-retardant, and the employer promised to tell its employees that their garments are not designed for use in areas of flammability risk or where contact with hazardous materials is possible.

Spears was injured while attempting to start a dump truck powered by a diesel engine.  Spears used a gasoline-soaked rag, a procedure he had used “thousands of times” to attempt to start an engine.The dump truck backfired, and Spears’s uniform caught on fire. As the uniform burned, it melted and fused to his body.

Spears filed suit in state court under the Louisiana Product Liability Act, alleging that the Cintas
uniform was an unreasonably dangerous product. Cintas moved for summary judgment, arguing that Spears could not present sufficient evidence to prove two elements of his claim: (1) that his damages were proximately caused by a characteristic of the Cintas uniform that rendered it unreasonably dangerous; and (2) that the damage arose from a reasonably anticipated use of the uniform. The district court found that Spears’s use of the uniform was not a reasonably anticipated use and granted summary judgment in favor of Cintas. Plaintiff appealed.

Under the LPLA, a manufacturer of a product shall be liable to a claimant for damage proximately caused by a characteristic of the product that renders the product unreasonably dangerous when such damage arose from a reasonably anticipated use of the product. If a plaintiff’s damages did not arise from a reasonably anticipated use of the product, then the unreasonably dangerous question need not even be reached. Reasonably anticipated use means a use or handling of a product that the product’s manufacturer should reasonably expect of an ordinary person in the same or similar circumstances. The court said  this is an objective inquiry that requires a court to ascertain what uses of its product the manufacturer should have reasonably expected at the time of manufacture.

A plaintiff’s use of a product is not reasonably anticipated in a situation where a manufacturer provides an express warning cautioning against a use of the product for which the product was neither designed nor intended, and where the plaintiff acts in direct contravention of that warning. Even if the warning did not reach the users, if the danger from a particular use of a product is obvious, then it is not a “reasonably anticipated use” under the LPLA. If the plaintiff acts in contravention of an express warning, the plaintiff’s use may still be reasonably anticipated if the plaintiff presents evidence that despite the warnings, the manufacturer should have been aware that users were using the product in contravention of the warnings.

Cintas did not dispute that the warning did not reach Spears. Instead, Cintas argued that Spears’s use was not a reasonably anticipated use because the danger of exposing the uniform to flammability risks was obvious to Spears. The record demonstrated that Spears knew that his uniform was not flame retardant. Furthermore, Spears’s testimony established that Spears knew that his poly-cotton uniform would melt.  Because the danger of exposing the uniform to flammability risks was obvious to Spears, his use of the uniform is not a “reasonably anticipated use” under the LPLA.

Plaintiff spent considerable effort arguing about the foreseeability of the danger involved in starting the engine with a gasoline-soaked rag. But the 5th Circuit said that was the wrong issue; it may be relevant in assessing a plaintiff’s comparative negligence, but it was not relevant to whether Spears’s use of the uniform was a reasonably anticipated use. The correct obvious-danger analysis in this case related to what Spears argues that Cintas should have warned against—that the uniform would melt when exposed to flame -- whatever the source. Furthermore, the court pointed out, Spears’s argument that he did not know the engine would backfire was contradicted by his other argument that Cintas should have reasonably anticipated that he would be exposed to flammability risks while wearing his uniform. If Spears, an expert mechanic, supposedly did not know that there was a risk that the engine would backfire when he attempted to start it, Cintas could not reasonably anticipate that its uniform would be exposed to the backfire of a diesel engine.

 

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