Allegedly Ambiguous Warning Fails to Insulate Manufacturer from Design Defect Claims

In a recent indemnity action brought by a residential care facility for the severely developmentally disabled against a plumbing company and a mixing valve manufacturer, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California granted in part and denied in part a manufacturer’s motion for summary judgment on the plaintiff’s manufacturing and design defect claims. Res-Care, Inc. v. Roto-Rooter Servs. Co., — F. Supp.2d —, No. C-09-03856, 2010 WL 4367219 (N.D. Cal. Oct. 28, 2010). The plaintiff commenced the action after settling a lawsuit for $8.5 million with the conservator of one of its residents who was badly scalded during a shower at the plaintiff’s facility.

Defendant, Leonard Valve Company (“Leonard”), manufactured a Leonard Valve Model 110 tempering valve (“the valve”) that was attached to the water heater at the plaintiff’s facility. A warning label placed in the product catalog and affixed to the valve itself indicated that the valve was not to be used for “direct showering and bathing applications,” should not be considered an “anti-scald device,” and should be inspected every six to twelve months. Leonard designed the valve in the 1950’s, and it had never been certified to meet any industry standards. The plaintiff was unsure of the age of the valve, but estimated that it had been installed in 1995. At any rate, the valve was visibly present and attached to the showering line when a plumber replaced the hot water heater at the plaintiff’s facility in 2004, approximately one week prior to the scalding. Following the accident, the valve was found to be corroded and likely inoperable for at least two months.

While the Court began its opinion by ruling in favor of Leonard on the plaintiff’s manufacturing defect claim citing a lack of evidence that the valve was not installed as an anti-scald device, Leonard’s fortunes quickly deteriorated. Despite Leonard’s argument that its warnings reduced the likelihood of injury and the fact that the valve had not been inspected for nearly ten years (contrary to the valve’s specific instructions to do so every six to twelve months), the Court held there to be a triable issue of fact as to the plaintiff’s design defect claim finding little evidence to show that the benefits of the Model 110 valve design outweighed the risk of danger.

Further, the Court held that there was at least a triable issue of fact as to whether the warning attached to the valve was ambiguous. The plaintiff argued that the phrase “direct showering or bathing application” was ambiguous by presenting evidence that the experienced plumber was unable to decipher the meaning of the phrase. While it could be argued that the definition of “bath” could encompass anything from a simple handwashing to a complex soak in the tub, it is interesting that the Court and the experienced plumber could assign an ambiguous meaning to the phrase “direct showering.” Apparently, the Court was aware of a line of cases assigning ambiguous meanings to unambiguous terms which the counsel for Leonard was not privy.

Had Leonard been aware of the Court’s opinion on the adequacy of its warning label, perhaps it would not have insisted on further relying upon it in defense of its argument for summary judgment on the plaintiff’s negligent design claim. Unfortunately for Leonard, the Court, in denying Leonard’s motion, held that warnings are not relevant in determining whether a manufacturer breached a duty to design a safe product and relied instead on the evidence that Leonard never considered an alternative design and failed to test to industry standards.

Lost in this discussion is the fact that the plaintiff not only failed to maintain the valve, contrary to Leonard’s instructions, but also knew at least five days prior to the incident that the water temperature was wildly fluctuating and still elected to place a severely developmentally disabled resident into the shower. This case demonstrates that despite instructions on the proper use of a product that may appear clear and unambiguous (at least to the average products liability legal blog contributor), a manufacturer can never be entirely certain that its product is not going to be misused by even the most “sophisticated” consumer.