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From Products Liability Law Daily, February 26, 2019

Jury instructions, verdict in favor of manufacturer upheld in gas can explosion death action

By Kathleen Bianco, J.D.

No error was found in a jury’s take-nothing verdict under Iowa’s Comparative Fault Act or in the trial court’s judgment in favor of a gas can manufacturer on the issue of post-sale failure to warn in a gas can explosion suit.

Challenges to the jury instructions given in a gas can explosion death action and to the trial court’s judgment as a matter of law in favor of the manufacturer on a post-sale failure to warn claim filed by the decedent’s wife were rejected by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit. The appellate panel determined that the instructions given were consistent with state law and were not prejudicial. The court also determined that the manufacturer did not have a duty to provide post-sale warnings because it lacked the ability to identify the users of the gas can in question (Wurster v. The Plastics Group, Inc.,February 25, 2019, Erickson, R.).

In February of 2013, the decedent sustained fatal injuries when a gas can he was using to burn garbage on his farm in Iowa exploded. It was alleged that the gas can exploded as the decedent was pouring gasoline from the can into a burn barrel, which caused the flame to travel up the stream of gasoline into the can, igniting vapor, and exploding. The decedent suffered extensive burns over his whole body in the ensuing explosion. He was rushed to a hospital in Iowa City, but the injuries proved to be fatal and he passed away the next day. The gas can used by the decedent was a model W520 manufactured by The Plastics Group (TPG) in November 2000. The main nozzle of the gas can was equipped with a mesh screen that acted as a flame arrester, but a vent hole in the back of the can was not protected by a mesh screen. Whether the decedent had poured the gas out of the main valve or the vent hole was unknown.

The decedent’s wife, acting individually and as the estate representative, filed suit against TPG. Following a trial, the district court granted the manufacturer’s motion for judgment as a matter of law on the post-sale failure to warn claim and the jury rendered a take-nothing verdict under Iowa’s comparative fault scheme after determining that TPG was 45 percent at fault for the decedent’s death for failing to provide adequate warnings on its gas can and that the decedent had been 55 percent at fault. The decedent’s wife appealed, challenging certain jury instructions and the judgment as a matter of law. Specifically, the wife contended that the district court had erred by (1) refusing to give her proposed design defect instruction; (2) instructing the jury on reasonable alternative design; (3) including two separate assumption-of-risk instructions; and (4) granting judgment as a matter of law on the post-sale failure to warn claim.

Jury instructions. When reviewing a district court’s refusal to adopt a proposed instruction, the appellate panel will consider whether the proposed instruction correctly states the applicable law, addresses matters not adequately covered by the charge, and involves a matter so important that a failure to include the instruction will impair the presentation of an effective case. After examining the evidence, the appellate panel concluded that the district court’s refusal to give the wife’s proposed design defect instruction was warranted because the instruction as drafted was inconsistent with Iowa law. The proposed instruction included the words "strict liability," and under Iowa Supreme Court precedent, a court should not submit both a negligence claim and a strict liability claim based on the same design defect. The appellate panel further rejected the wife’s claim that the omission of her proposed design defect instruction hindered her ability to present her design defect claim, finding that the instructions as a whole, including the instructions on negligent design and the factors to consider when assessing a negligent design claim, sufficiently presented the issue to the jury.

As to the challenges to the instructions on reasonable alternative design and the assumption of risk, the appellate panel found the inclusion of those instructions to be warranted to assist the jury. Moreover, the panel found the instructions to be non-prejudicial. Accordingly, the panel found no error in the inclusion of the challenged instructions.

Post-sale failure to warn claim. Finally, the decedent’s wife contended that the district court erred when it granted the manufacturer judgment as a matter of law on her post-sale failure to warn claim. Under Iowa law, a finding of a post-sale duty to warn requires that the defendant be a party engaged in the business of selling or distributing products and that a reasonable person in the seller’s position would provide a warning after the time of sale if: (1) the seller knows or reasonably should know that the product poses a risk of harm to users or property; and (2) those to whom the warning might be provided can be identified and can reasonably be assumed to be unaware of the risk of harm; (3) a warning can be effectively communicated to and acted on by those to whom a warning might be provided; and (4) the risk of harm is sufficiently great to justify the burden of providing the warning.

Generally, a jury makes the determination of whether a warning should be given, but a court can decide based on the circumstance of a case that the factors used to determine that a duty exists are not met. In the case at hand, the district court found that the wife had presented insufficient evidence to establish that the manufacturer had a post-sale duty to warn because the record showed that the manufacturer did not have the ability to identify users of its gas can or to determine who should be warned. Consequently, the district court’s award of judgment as a matter of law to the manufacturer was affirmed.

The case is No. 17-2698.

Attorneys: Diane M. Breneman (Shaffer & Lombardo) for Judith Wurster. John Michael Hawkins (Weinberg & Wheeler) for The Plastics Group, Inc.

Companies: The Plastics Group, Inc.

MainStory: TopStory DesignManufacturingNews WarningsNews DefensesLiabilityNews HouseholdProductsNews ArkansasNews IowaNews MinnesotaNews MissouriNews NebraskaNews NorthDakotaNews SouthDakotaNews

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