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Suarez v. W.M. Barr & Co. – Product Liability Lawsuit to Proceed

A man using chemical paint remover was seriously injured when the substance ignited and burned him. He and his wife filed a product liability lawsuit against the manufacturer of that chemical, alleging the warning labels were inadequate and the product was defectively designed. 

A federal district court in Illinois granted summary judgment to defendant in Suarez v. W.M. Barr & Co. on both of these counts. Recently, though, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit reversed in part. Specifically, the court ruled that while the label on the product did accurately describe the primary risks for consumers, there was a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the product was defectively design based on theories of strict liability and negligence.

Strict product liability is a legal rule that holds sellers, distributors and/ or manufacturers of defective products liable to the person injured by that product, regardless of whether defendant was negligent. In a claim alleging negligence, a defendant’s standard of conduct is central to proving liability. That is, defendant acted in a way that fell below the standard of reasonable conduct. In strict liability cases, however, the idea is that it doesn’t matter how defendant acted. Instead, what must be shown is that the product was in unreasonably dangerous condition, the seller expected/ intended the product would reach the consumer without changes and plaintiff was injured by defective product. 

In the Suarez case, plaintiff alleges product liability based on both theories.

According to court records, the incident occurred in April 2012, when plaintiff purchased a one-gallon can of professional-strength paint remover made by defendant to remove paint from a concrete basement floor. The primary ingredient in the product is acetone, which is extremely flammable – a point that was outlined on the warning label.

That warning label, issued in both English and Spanish, stated the product was extremely flammable and should be kept away from heat/ sparks/ flame and should only be used with adequate ventilation. Plaintiff said he read the warning labels, opened a window and two doors,  spread the material on top of the paint, allowed it to sit for a while and then “agitated” it, as directed by the label. First, he did so with his foot and then he got a broom. As he was spreading the product with a broom, a fire erupted. Plaintiff suffered severe burns on his hands, neck, face and head.

He and his wife filed a product liability lawsuit. To support their claim, they presented testimony from an expert witness who opined it was the agitation of the material (as opposed to inadequate ventilation or proximity to a furnace) that caused the fire. That would mean plaintiff was using the product as intended/ instructed when the incident occurred, which directly calls into question the design.

Nonetheless, trial court granted summary judgment to defense on both counts.

In its partial reversal, the appellate court held that while the warning label did properly outline the risks, there remained a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the product was defectively designed. Plaintiff will now be allowed to proceed with that portion of his claim.

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Additional Resources:

Suarez v. W.M. Barr & Co. , Nov. 22, 2016, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit

More Blog Entries:

UIM Bad Faith Case Stumbles On Permanency Threshold Requirement, Oct. 26, 2016, Fort Lauderdale Injury Lawyer Blog

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