Eighth Circuit Cleans Up Chemical Spill Case in Favor of Home Products Manufacturer
Product Liability Advisory
In Mwesigwa v. DAP, Inc., ___ F.3d ___, 2011 WL 1584760 (8th Cir. April 28, 2011), the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit ruled in favor of a chemical manufacturer by affirming that the label on the company's liquid construction adhesive satisfied the requirements of the Federal Hazardous Substances Act (FHSA, 15 U.S.C. § 1261 et seq.). While using DAP Weldwood Gel Formula Contact Cement to install baseboards in his home, decedent Michael Mwesigwa accidentally dropped the container in his home's laundry room and spilled some cement on the floor. As he wiped up the cement, cement vapors ignited and caused a flash fire. Mwesigwa suffered severe burns and ultimately died from his injuries.
Mwesigwa's family filed suit in federal court alleging that the cement's label failed to properly warn consumers under the FHSA. On both claims, however, the district court granted summary judgment for the manufacturer. First, the plaintiffs alleged that the cement's label should have separately warned that a principal hazard of the product was the risk of fire from a spill. The Eighth Circuit disagreed, holding that the cement's numerous fire-risk warnings adequately addressed the true primary hazard of fire risk. The court held that a spill itself was not a "primary hazard" because "the risk created is the potential for a fire . . . [and a]bsent ignition sources, the spilling or spreading of the product will not result in an ordinary or flash fire." Id. at *3.
Second, the plaintiffs alleged the cement's label was insufficient under the FHSA because it failed to give adequate "precautionary measures" for spill cleanup. The plaintiffs alleged that the label should warn consumers that any spill should be cleaned up with an inert absorbent material and not wiped up or spread around. The Eighth Circuit again disagreed with the plaintiffs, holding that the FHSA did not require the cement label to warn consumers in this way because "precautionary measures" that must be on the label are only such measures "necessary to avoid the principal hazard associated with the product." Id. (citing 15 U.S.C. § 1261(p)(1)(F)). The Eighth Circuit held that there were already adequate instructions for avoiding the principal hazards of general flammability and flash fire, and that "[s]preading the product after a spill is dangerous only if the consumer has not removed potential sources of ignition" as already required by the label. The court also held that even though an additional warning to not spread the cement during a spill "might bolster the precautionary measures already provided, the FHSA does not require the additional warning." Having found the cement's label adequate, the Eighth Circuit affirmed the grant of summary judgment for the manufacturer. Ultimately, this decision affirms a narrow reading of the FHSA label requirements and assists product manufacturers with avoiding unwarranted failure-to-warn liability.