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From Products Liability Law Daily, March 5, 2015

Rental company not on hot seat for supplying flammable uniforms

By Pamela C. Maloney, J.D.

A work uniform rental company owed no duty under the New Jersey Products Liability Act (NJPLA) to supply only fire-resistant apparel for employees who worked in factory areas subject to high temperatures, the federal district court in New Jersey determined, rejecting allegations that the uniform company should be held liable for providing a defective product because it knew that its non-flame-retardant uniforms were being misused in this way (Pitts v. Leone Industries, March 4, 2015, Rodriguez, J.).

Background. Lewis Pitts, who was employed by Leone Industries, operated a bottle manufacturing machine and was injured seriously when his uniform shirt, which had been rented from ARAMARK Uniform & Career Apparel by his employer, came into contact with hot bottles on a conveyor, ignited, and burst into flames. Pitts (hereinafter “the worker”) filed claims under NJPLA against ARAMARK, among others, contending that the shirt was a defective product negligently sold and/or distributed for use near or over machines and bottles that emitted extremely high temperatures. ARAMARK moved for summary judgment, arguing that it had no duty to require the worker’s employer to rent only fire-resistant apparel for employees who worked in factory areas that were subject to high temperatures. The worker’s cross-motion for summary judgment countered that because ARAMARK knew that Leone employees were using untreated 100-percent cotton shirts in the “hot end” of the factory, the release of its product into the stream of commerce for an actually known misuse was a violation of NJPLA as a matter of law.

Uniform company’s duty. The court rejected the worker’s arguments, granting summary judgment for ARAMARK. The court found that ARAMARK had offered Leone various fire-resistant apparel options, including an offer of free fire-resistant clothing as an inducement to re-sign a continuing uniform rental agreement. However, Leone had rejected that offer and had opted to continue its long-standing practice of renting untreated 100-percent cotton uniforms for its workers.

The court also pointed out that a label on the shirts warned “NOT FLAME RESISTENT.” Despite the label and other evidence showing that extensive warnings had been given both orally and in written rental agreements, the worker argued that ARAMARK had a duty to refuse to release the 100-percent cotton shirts to his employer, citing relevant case precedent. The court distinguished the cited cases from the case at bar, explaining that the record did not support a finding that ARAMARK knew that its uniform shirts would be “misused” by Leone’s employees. ARAMARK’s sales representative testified that although he had walked through the plant, he did not recall having seen the subject machines, nor had he been allowed to go into the areas where the actual bottles were being manufactured due to safety concerns.

This evidence, combined with evidence that the employer was knowledgeable about the warned risk and nevertheless had made a knowing and voluntary selection of the uniform shirt, was sufficient to find in favor of the uniform company on its motion for summary judgment.

The case is Civil Action No. 13-2350.

Attorneys: William J. Martin (Martin, Gunn & Martin) for Lewis Pitts. Tracy A. Walsh (Weber Gallagher Simpson Stapleton Fires & Newby) for Leone Industries, Inc., Philip W. Crawford (Gibbons P.C.) for ARAMARK Uniform & Career Apparel, LLC.

Companies: Leone Industries, Inc., ARAMARK Uniform & Career Apparel, LLC

MainStory: TopStory WarningsNews DesignManufacturingNews IndustrialCommercialEquipNews NewJerseyNews

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