English-Only Warnings: Adequate or Parsimonious?

Often at issue in products liability litigation is whether a manufacturer adequately warned consumers of the potential dangers of its product. Product warnings can be pictorial, but typically, they take the form of written statements printed on the product’s packaging or within its instruction manuals.  Often, these printed warnings are written only in English.  But as our country becomes more culturally diverse, questions arise as to whether English-only warnings are adequate.  Recently, in Farias v. Mr. Heater, Inc., No. 11-10405, 2011 WL 2354369 (11th Cir. June 21, 2012), the Eleventh Circuit touched on that very issue – somewhat. (Back in January 2011, we covered the lower court’s opinion.)

In Farias, the plaintiff purchased two propane infra-red portable heaters manufactured by Mr. Heater, Inc.  One night, the plaintiff went to sleep with the two heaters running inside her home.  Because she neglected to close a valve on one of the propane tanks, her home caught fire, causing $300,000 in damages.  She filed suit against Mr. Heater and the retailer, asserting claims of strict products liability and negligent failure to warn.  The Spanish-speaking plaintiff alleged that the pictorial and English-language warnings were inadequate in alerting her of the dangers of using heaters indoors.  After Mr. Heater was awarded summary judgment on each of her claims, the plaintiff appealed.

The plaintiff acknowledged that Florida law did not impose an automatic duty to provide bilingual warnings.  However, she alleged that the warnings were inadequate because the pictures and English-text were inherently contradictory, inaccurate and ambiguous.  Further, she argued that English-only warnings were inadequate because Mr. Heater marketed the heaters to Miami’s Hispanic community.

The Eleventh Circuit was unpersuaded by either argument.

The  argued contradiction between the pictorial and English-language warnings is intriguing.  First, it is unclear how pictures and written text can be contradictory when the consumer lacks the ability to read the text.  If the written warnings were inadequate because they were not written in Spanish and, thus, could not be read by the plaintiff, it is illogical to assert that unreadable words contradicted with the pictorial warnings.

Second, the heater’s packaging contained six pictures depicting the appropriate usage of the product.  None of these pictures showed the heaters being used inside a home.  To accompany these pictures, the following warnings were printed on the box:

This heater is recommended for outdoor use only.

Always store propane cylinders outdoors in well-ventilated areas.

Not designed for use in living areas or small tightly enclosed spaces.

Propane heaters should be located outdoors during heater operations.

It is hard to envision any inconsistency between these written warnings and the pictures printed on the box.  However, the fact that the plaintiff was unable to read the English-language warnings leaves open the possibility that the pictures did not foreclose on the idea of using the heaters indoors.  Of course, the plaintiff had already conceded that Florida law does not require bilingual warnings.

As to the plaintiff’s second argument, the Eleventh Circuit found no evidence that Mr. Heater targeted the Hispanic community in its marketing.  As such, the Court did not find that the marketing efforts created a duty to provide bilingual warnings.  It would have been interesting to see how the Court’s analysis would have changed if Mr. Heater did so market the heater.  This may precluded summary judgment.

Unfortunately, due to some well-established Florida law on the subject, the Eleventh Circuit did not provide any thought-provoking jurisprudence on the necessity of bilingual warnings.  We here at Abnormal Use expect that the precedent will be challenged as we move forward.  While we doubt manufacturers will ever be required to print warnings in every language spoken in the United States, it isn’t far-stretched to assume they might be required to address the predominant ones.