Key Takeaway: In Superior Oil Company, Inc. v. Labno-Fritchley, 207 N.E.3d 456 (Ind. Ct. App. 2023), the Indiana Court of Appeals reversed a trial court’s denial of summary judgment in a product liability case. The court held that summary judgment should have been granted because the defendant’s designated evidence related to the product’s warning label established the affirmative defenses of misuse and incurred risk as a matter of law. Notably, the opinion illustrates how failure to heed the warnings that accompany a product can amount to unforeseeable product misuse.
Background: Plaintiff’s decedent attempted to remove the top of an empty 55-gallon metal drum with a cutting torch when it exploded, resulting in his death. The top of the drum – at which the decedent had to have been looking as he cut – bore an 8” x 12” warning label that, among other things, warned of the dangers of an empty metal drum and advised “[d]o not flame cut, braze, or weld empty container.” Although not emphasized by the Labno-Fritchley court, a picture of the label in the court’s opinion suggests that this language comprised only a very small portion of the label and was not in boldfaced or underlined font.
Plaintiff filed suit against the manufacturer of the flammable chemical that had been packaged in the drum, alleging negligence, violations of the Indiana Products Liability Act (the “Act”), negligent infliction of emotional distress, and wrongful death. Defendant asserted three affirmative defenses under the Act: (1) misuse of the product, (2) modification or alteration of the product, and (3) use of the product with knowledge of the defect and danger. Arguing that all of plaintiff’s claims were governed by the Act and that each affirmative defense was a complete defense, defendant filed for summary judgment. The trial court denied the motion but certified the issue for interlocutory appeal.
Discussion and Holding: The court agreed that the Act governed all of plaintiff’s claims and held that defendant had established the affirmative defenses of misuse and incurred risk as a matter of law.
The Act provides that, “It is a defense to an action under this article … that a cause of the physical harm is a misuse of the product by the claimant or any other person not reasonably expected by the seller at the time the seller sold or otherwise conveyed the product to another party.” Misuse, moreover, “is established as a matter of law when the undisputed evidence proves that plaintiff used the product in direct contravention of the product’s warnings and instructions.”
The court found that the drum’s warning label (1) would have clearly been visible to the decedent, (2) warns generally of the dangers of an empty drum that contained flammable liquid, and (3) specifically instructs not to cut an empty drum with a flame. Based on these undisputed facts, the court held that the drum “was used in direct contravention of its label’s prominent and explicit warnings regarding flammability and instructions regarding flame cutting an empty drum and/or exposing it to heat.” Therefore, “the defense of misuse has been established as a matter of law” because defendant “could not have reasonably expected that it would be misused in the way that it was.”
Notably, the court’s recitation of the relevant facts included a discussion of decedent’s extensive training and experience relevant to fire safety and cutting with a torch. Although the court specifically noted that the label in question was sufficient to convey the risk even to a layperson, it added that “the misuse that occurred in this case – committed, as it was, by a person with [decedent’s] training and background – would have been particularly unforeseeable.”
The Act also provides that, “It is a defense to an action under this article … that the user or consumer bringing the action: (1) knew of the defect; (2) was aware of the danger in the product; and (3) nevertheless proceeded to make use of the product and was injured.”
The court concluded that the warning label was adequate to warn a person, including the decedent, of the risks posed by the drum. Specifically, “the large, prominent warning label on the top of drum informed readers that the contents of the drum were flammable and explosive and would remain so even when drum was empty unless it had been reconditioned.” The court also found that the label “specifically informed readers in no uncertain terms not to cut the drum with a flame even if empty, instructions which, if followed, would have avoided the danger posed by the drum altogether.” Simply put, the court held that the designated evidence established that the warning label gave reasonable warnings about the dangers posed by the drum and how to avoid them, but that the decedent nevertheless ignored them.
Accordingly, the court reversed the trial court’s denial of summary judgment and remanded.
Conclusion: This is a case that products liability defendants should consider whenever a plaintiff alleges injury arising out of a use of the product that is expressly warned against in the product’s label. Labno-Fritchley illustrates how strong warnings can not only fend off failure-to-warn claims, but potentially also establish a misuse and/or incurred risk defense. That is particularly relevant where, as in Labno-Fritchley, the user of the product has some independent knowledge of the relevant risks.
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