Products Liability Law Daily Failure to warn claim in BIC lighter burn injury action survives dismissal
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Friday, June 26, 2020

Failure to warn claim in BIC lighter burn injury action survives dismissal

By Nicholas Kaster, J.D.

A manufacturer with general knowledge of the lighter industry should know of the products’ potential dangers, such as leaking lighter fluid.

A lighter user’s failure to warn claim against BIC USA, Inc. involving injuries caused by an allegedly defective lighter survived a motion to dismiss by the manufacturer. The federal district court in New Jersey held that the claimant sufficiently pleaded that BIC manufactured the product, that the user was a reasonably foreseeable user of the lighter when attempting to light a candle, that the product was defective in that it lacked an adequate warning at the time it left the manufacturers’ control, and that the defect was the factual and proximate cause of the user's injury. However, the injured claimant did not state sufficient facts to sustain manufacturing and design defect claims against the lighter maker, the court additionally ruled (Vandegrift v. BIC USA, Inc., June 25, 2020, Rodriguez, J.).

The user was trying to light a candle when she suddenly heard a pop and lighter fluid began to leak from a lighter manufactured by BIC. She claimed that the fluid ignited, causing her to sustain second degree burns and numbness on her right hand as a result of the incident. The user brought an action under the New Jersey Products Liability Act (PLA) alleging that her injuries were the result of (1) a manufacturing defect, (2) BIC’s failure to adequately warn users of the potential dangers from using the lighter, or (3) a design defect in the lighter. BIC moved to dismiss the complaint for failure to state a claim.

Manufacturing defect claim. To establish a manufacturing defect, a plaintiff is required to demonstrate, "in a general sense and as understood by a layman, that something was wrong with the product." Here, the claimant alleged that the BIC lighter "deviated from defendants’ own design specifications or performance standards." According to the court, this was a conclusory statement and not sufficient to state a claim. The user failed to provide enough factual support to show how the lighter deviated from BIC’s "design specifications, formulae, or performance standards or from otherwise identical units manufactured to the same manufacturing specifications or formulae." As a result, the court held, the complaint did not allege sufficient facts to plead a plausible manufacturing defect claim under New Jersey law.

Failure to warn claim. In a failure to warn case, the alleged defect is not in the design or the manufacturing of the product. Rather, "the defect is in the failure to warn unsuspecting users that the product can potentially cause injury." Under the PLA, an adequate product warning or instruction is one that a reasonably prudent person in the same or similar circumstances would have provided with respect to the product’s danger and that communicates adequate information on the dangers and safe use of the product while taking into account the characteristics of the product, as well as "the ordinary knowledge common to the persons by whom the product is intended to be used." As such, "when the foreseeable risks of harm posed by the product could have been reduced or avoided by the provision of reasonable warnings the omission of the warnings renders the product not reasonably safe."

In the case at bar, the user alleged that the product was defective since it "failed to contain an adequate warning or instructions, including but not limited to a warning or instruction that the product would malfunction or could malfunction in the manner in which it did malfunction when the accident occurred." The court found that the complaint sufficiently pleaded that BIC had a duty to warn of "dangers" that it "should have known on the basis of reasonably obtainable or available knowledge." As an example, the user alleged that BIC, as the manufacturer of the product, "actually knew or should have known of the need to issue a particular warning." The claim was supported by the complaint’s assertion that "the law requires a manufacturer/seller to keep reasonably familiar with and to know reliable information generally available or reasonably obtainable in the industry." According to the court, it was "common sense" that a manufacturer with general knowledge of the lighter industry should know about the potential dangers of lighters, such as leaking lighter fluid. Furthermore, the user alleged that BIC should have known of these dangers from complaints from users, sellers, or distributors.

Consequently, the court found that the user alleged the elements for a failure to warn claim required under the PLA. She sufficiently pleaded that BIC was the manufacturer of the product, that she was a reasonably foreseeable user of the lighter when she attempted to light a candle, that the product was defective such that it lacked an adequate warning at the time it left BIC’s control, and that the defect was the factual and proximate cause of her injury since she allegedly would have followed an adequate warning if given one. Therefore, the court found that the complaint alleged sufficient facts to plead a plausible failure to warn claim under New Jersey law.

Design defect claim. The PLA provides that in any product liability action against a manufacturer or seller for harm allegedly caused by a product that was designed in a defective manner, the manufacturer or seller will not be liable if the product’s characteristics are known to ordinary consumers or users and the harm was caused by an unsafe aspect of the product that is an inherent characteristic of the product and that would be recognized by an ordinary person who uses the product "with the ordinary knowledge common to the class of persons for whom the product is intended." As such, the court stated that a plaintiff rarely will be able to present a valid design defect cause of action without addressing why the dangerous characteristics of the product would not be recognized by the ordinary person who uses it. Here, the user alleged that the lighter "failed to perform in accordance with the consumer’s/user’s reasonable expectations" and that the product was defective since it malfunctioned when it leaked lighter fluid. She further asserted that the product was designed in a defective manner, it was defectively designed because it did not employ a reasonable safer design, and that "the risks or dangers of the product as designed outweigh its usefulness and, therefore, that a reasonably careful manufacturer or supplier would not have sold the product at all in the form in which it was sold."

The court found these allegations were conclusory statements and were insufficient to state a claim. Although "detailed factual allegations" are not necessary, the court said that it is "a plaintiff’s obligation" to provide the grounds of his entitlement to relief and this requires more than labels and conclusions or a formulaic recitation of the elements of the cause of action. Therefore, the court held that the complaint did not allege sufficient facts to plead a plausible design defect claim under New Jersey law.

Accordingly, the court denied the manufacturer’s motion as to the failure to warn claim, but granted the motion as to the claims of manufacturing and design defect. Furthermore, having found that amendment would not be futile, the court granted leave to amend the dismissed claims.

The case is Civil Action No. 19-cv-11471.

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