Products Liability Law Daily Maker of synthetic marijuana product not liable for wrongful deaths of auto accident victims
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Tuesday, June 9, 2020

Maker of synthetic marijuana product not liable for wrongful deaths of auto accident victims

By Kathleen Bianco, J.D.

Auto accident was not the foreseeable result of the manufacturer’s failure to warn of risks related to a user consuming a product not intended for human consumption.

A Florida jury verdict finding the manufacturer of a synthetic marijuana known as "spice" liable for the wrongful deaths of three individuals, who were killed in a car accident caused by a driver who had ingested the manufacturer’s product, became highly intoxicated, and drove his vehicle at a high rate of speed into the decedents’ vehicle, was reversed by a Florida Court of Appeal with directions to grant a directed verdict in favor of the manufacturer (DZE Corp. v. Vickers, June 8, 2020, Thomas, B.L.).

The individual responsible for the accident had voluntarily consumed the manufacturer’s product, a highly dangerous chemical marketed as "potpourri," even though it was labeled "not for human consumption." After ingesting the product, the individual became highly intoxicated, and in his impaired state, drove his vehicle at a high rate of speed, which resulted in the accident that killed the three decedents. The crash victims’ estates filed suit against the manufacturer for wrongful death, alleging both negligence and strict liability failure to warn. The manufacturer moved for a directed verdict, asserting that no proximate cause could be proven because the sole cause of the deaths was the intoxicated driving of the individual who had consumed the manufacturer’s product against the clear warning that the product was not intended for human consumption.

The trial court denied the manufacturer’s motion and the jury returned a verdict, finding the manufacturer 65 percent at fault compared to the driver’s 35-percent fault. The manufacturer appealed the verdict.

Causation. After analyzing established case law precedent, the appellate court concluded that the failure to grant the manufacturer’s motion for a directed verdict was in error. The Florida Supreme Court has held that even when an actor’s conduct creates a dangerous situation, the law will not allow a jury to find proximate cause when an unforeseeable, intervening act was the cause of the injuries.

In the case at hand, the sole cause of the accident was the driver’s unforeseeable decision to drive while intoxicated. Any conclusion that the manufacturer’s failure to warn was the proximate legal cause of the devastating crash that occurred required speculation that the manufacturer could foresee that the user of its product would: (1) disregard the warning on the product and consume the product; (2) become voluntarily intoxicated; and (3) drive recklessly in violation of the state’s criminal laws and cause an accident.

Further support for reversal existed because Florida law does not permit a jury to consider proximate cause when a person responsible for the injury is voluntarily impaired or intentionally misuses a product.

While the manufacturer did not refute the claim that it negligently manufactured its product or provided inadequate warnings, it correctly contended that it could not be held liable to a third party that was not directly impacted by its product, where another party voluntarily consumed the manufacturer’s product to become intoxicated and drove a vehicle in violation of the law. Thus, the jury verdict was reversed, and the trial court was instructed to grant the manufacturer’s motion for a directed verdict.

The case is No. 1D18-5081.

Attorneys: Bradley J. Ellis (Icard, Merrill, Cullis, Timm, Furen & Ginsburg, P.A.) for DZE Corp. John S. Mills (The Mills Firm, P.A.) for Vince Duron Vickers.

Companies: DZE Corp.

MainStory: TopStory CausationNews ChemicalNews FloridaNews

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