By David Yucht, J.D.
Injured woman’s intentionally igniting herself was a superseding cause of her injuries.
A woman’s admission to a pastoral resident at a hospital that she had set herself on fire with body spray was not protected by the clergy-penitent privilege and, thus, was admissible in a products liability action against the manufacturer of the product, a state appellate court in California ruled in an unpublished decision. The court also found that the woman’s statement was not ambiguous and, in context, demonstrated an intent to harm herself. Moreover, the act of setting herself on fire was a superseding cause of injury that relieved the manufacturer of any liability. Consequently, the appellate court affirmed the lower court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of the body spray manufacturer and dismissed the woman’s lawsuit (Amber H. v. Parfums de Coeur, Ltd. Corp., November 18, 2019, Burns, G.).
A woman living in a nursing facility suffered from chronic pain, seizures, and depression. She set herself on fire using a perfumed body spray while outside of the building in which she lived. Through her guardian, she sued the body spray manufacturer under theories of negligence and strict products liability, alleging that the company failed to adequately warn consumers that the spray was flammable and failed to use a color additive in the spray that would make the flames immediately visible when ignited. She submitted expert opinions stating that the body spray was especially dangerous because it could burn invisibly when ignited. The experts opined that the danger "could have easily been eliminated by coloring" the spray with additives. This allegedly would have lessened the injuries because the fire would have been detected sooner.
The manufacturer presented evidence that while in the hospital being treated for her burns, the woman told a pastoral resident that she "sprayed body spray on herself and then set herself on fire," and sought forgiveness for this act. The manufacturer filed a motion for summary judgment, which was granted by the trial court. The woman appealed, asserting that what she told the pastoral resident was privileged under the clergy-penitent privilege and, consequently, the trial court relied on inadmissible evidence in coming to its decision.
Privilege. The appellate court affirmed the trial court’s judgment dismissing the action. In California, for a communication to be protected by the clergy-penitent privilege, among other things, the clergy member must have a duty under the tenets of his or her religious organization to keep such communication secret. Here, the pastoral resident had no duty to keep her communications secret. The resident testified at her deposition that she considered the information she obtained from patients "confidential," but she did not identify any religious organization imposing such a duty. Additionally, the resident was required to share notes of such conversations with doctors and nurses. This communication was not privileged and was admissible under the party admission exception to the hearsay rule as well as the business records exception, as it was recorded in the woman’s hospital file.
Reasonable inferences. The appellate court disagreed that, even if the statements to the pastoral resident were admissible, a triable issue remained regarding intent to harm. The woman contended that the trial court was obligated to accept more favorable inferences from her recorded statements. She argued that her statement that she "sprayed body spray on herself and then set herself on fire" was ambiguous because she could have meant that she set herself on fire by accident. This interpretation was not reasonably drawn from her statements when read in context. If it was an accident, she would not have asked for forgiveness.
Superseding cause. Finally, the appellate court agreed with the lower court that the manufacturer was relieved of liability because intentional self-harm was a superseding cause of the injuries. The superseding cause doctrine is an affirmative defense that absolves a tortfeasor of liability "even though [the tortfeasor’s] conduct was a substantial contributing factor." To qualify as a superseding cause that would relieve the manufacturer of liability, both the intervening act and the results of that act must not be foreseeable. Product misuse is a superseding cause when "the misuse was so highly extraordinary as to be unforeseeable." Here, both the woman’s intentional act of lighting herself on fire after dousing herself with body spray and her injuries were unforeseeable. The court would not fault the manufacturer for failing to anticipate that a person would deliberately use body spray to set herself on fire and, as the fire burned and spread, fail to suppress it, cry out, or otherwise alert anyone.
The case is No. A153958.
Attorneys: Andrew Nathan Chang (Covington & Burling LLP) for Amber Herod. James J. Yukevich (James J. Yukevich, Attorney at Law) for Parfums de Coeur Ltd.. Corp.
Companies: Parfums de Coeur Ltd. Corp.; Save Mart Supermarkets, Inc.
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