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Are English-Only Labels Adequate Warning?

Written by Ankin Law Office

Under product liability law, manufacturers and distributors of “dangerous or defective” products are responsible for the injuries those products cause. Injured parties can seek compensation through personal injury lawsuits. Product liability suits can be filed against anyone along a product’s supply chain including the designer, manufacturer, wholesaler, marketer and retailer.

There are three types of defects that may be claimed in a product liability case, including design defects, manufacturing defects, and marketing defects. Marketing defects allege that a product was not labeled with adequate instructions of warnings to ensure safe usage of the product.

Product warnings can include pictures, but warnings often come in the form of written statements that are printed on the products’ packaging, label, or instruction manual. Oftentimes, written warning statements are in English only. As America becomes increasingly more diverse and multi-linguistic, issues are arising as to whether English-only warning labels are adequate.

The Eleventh Circuit recently decided a case that dealt with this very issue in Farias v. Mr. Heater, Inc., No. 11-10405, 2011 WL 2354369 (11th Cir. June 21, 2012). In Farias, the plaintiff had purchased two propane infra-red portable heaters, which she placed in her home. One night, she forgot to close a valve on one of the propane tanks and her home caught fire, resulting in $300,000 worth of damages.  The plaintiff filed a product liability lawsuit against the manufacturer and retailer of the propane tanks, alleging that they had been negligent in providing adequate warnings. The plaintiff was a Spanish-speaking woman and the product included pictorial and English-language warnings. The trial court awarded a summary judgment in favor of the defendants and the plaintiff appealed.

The plaintiff argued that that the warnings were inadequate because the pictures and English-text were inherently contradictory, inaccurate and ambiguous, and that the English-only warnings were inadequate because the product was marketed a Hispanic community. The Eleventh Circuit disagreed with the plaintiff’s arguments, finding no evidence that the target market for the heaters was the Hispanic community and that the pictures were not contradictory or inaccurate.

Despite the court’s decision, however, it remains unclear whether the court would have come to a different conclusion had it determined that the product was marketed to the Hispanic community. Given the cultural and linguistic diversity of the country, however, it is quite possible that in the future courts may hold that English-only labels are inadequate warnings.

Categories: Product Liability