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Farias v. Mr. Heater Inc. Trial and Results

The case Farias v. Mr. Heater, Inc., et al. (2010) was viewed in the U.S. District Court of Southern District of Florida. The suit was filed in State Court and removed to the Federal Court due to diversity jurisdiction (Order granting defendants’ motion for summary judgment 2010). It involved Lilybet Farias as the Plaintiff and such companies as Mr. Heater, Inc., Enerco Group, Inc., and Home Depot, Inc. as Defendants.

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Factual Allegations

Farias, the Plaintiff, filed suit against the three companies on the basis of damages which were caused to her house during the fire that happened due to her using heaters manufactured and sold by Defendants. The heaters, appearing in this case, were sold nationwide by Home Depot and produced by two companies – Mr. Heater, Inc. and Enerco, Inc. Both heaters were not designated for indoor use as stated in their’ descriptions. Farias, a naturalized citizen of the U.S., moved from Cuba and had a house in Cutler Bay, Florida (Farias v. Mr. Heater, Inc., et al. 2010). She has been living in the country for more than five years. However, Farias did not have a sufficient level of English language and could not read or speak fluently.

On February 5, 2009, Plaintiff decided that her house temperatures were too low and she needed to purchase an indoor heater. Farias went to Home Depot in Miami, where she spoke to an employee and learned that there were no heaters available in that particular store. Then, Plaintiff visited another store’s location in Miami and talked to a worker in Spanish in order to learn where she could purchase a heater. The employee told her that there were two heaters left available for sale and explained where they could be located.

Plaintiff found the heaters and attempted to examine their packaging in order to understand the heater’s uses. As she could not read instructions written in English, Farias looked at the illustrations and schematics provided by the company. These graphics showed a range of appropriate placements for heaters and their intended uses. According to Plaintiff, a number of these pictures showed that this model of the heater could be used inside a room such as a garage and a warehouse. Therefore, Farias decided that these products were suitable to use at her house and proceeded to purchase these two models. Moreover, she bought one propane gas tank in order to use it with a heater. Plaintiff already had another tank at home and planned on using it with one of the heaters as well. The employees at Home Depot did not give her any additional instructions about safe use and operation for the purchased goods.

After returning home, Farias referred to the images that were included in the heaters’ manual. According to these illustrated instructions, Plaintiff attached the heaters to the propane gas tanks. Farias admitted that she did not read any writer instructions as they were in English and she could not understand them. However, she recognized a number of warning signs and words such as “caution” and “danger.” She also stated that she knew these words and saw them preparing in the text of the manual. However, she continued to think that these heaters were safe to use indoors as her language level was insufficient to understand the rest of those cautionary messages. The manual had a variety of warning phrases and highlighted that people who have not read the manual could not use the heater in any way. Furthermore, a number of warnings stated that the heater was not intended for indoor use.

The manual did not feature any messages in Spanish. After assembling the heaters, Farias placed one of them in her bedroom and another one in the living room, which she then turned on. Before going to sleep, Plaintiff turned the living room heater off and the bedroom heater on. Several hours later, she woke up and saw that smoke was pouring into the room and the living room was on fire. Plaintiff told the firefighters that the source of the fire was in the living room and that it originated because of the heater.

Summary of Injury and Damages

As a result of Farias using the heaters inside her house, it caught on fire and was severely damaged. Plaintiff called the firefighters who stopped the fire from spreading and prevented the full destruction of the house. The cost of damages was approximated to be $300,000 (Farias v. Mr. Heater, Inc., et al. 2010). There were no reports of people or pets being injured as a result of this fire. According to the case’s materials, the only damaged property was the Plaintiff’s house.

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Human Factors Experts’ Involvement and Opinions

Plaintiff had a human factors expert, William Vigilante, who stated that the provided warnings were inadequate (Order granting defendants’ motion for summary judgment 2010). The reason for them being insufficient was that they were not written in Spanish. He noted that this fact made them inadequate per se. His opinion affected Plaintiff’s claims as she relied on his opinion to accuse the manufacturing companies of negligence. However, her behavior in the situation showed that she did not attempt to understand the warnings and neglected the signs and words which she recognized to be cautionary upon examining the boxes in the store. She also did not interact with an English-speaking employee in the store after seeing these warnings to understand the possible risks of using these heaters better.

The fact that there were no warnings in Spanish were rendered irrelevant by the Court as Plaintiff failed to look at the manual at all and only directed her attention at images. Moreover, she did not communicate with anyone to explain the cautionary messages to her. Thus, the opinion of the expert was dismissed based on the level of ignorance that Plaintiff expressed in the situation. As the Court’s files state, “such willful ignorance is certainly akin – If not precisely the same – as refusing to read the warnings at all” (Order granting defendants’ motion for summary judgment 2010, p. 9). The notes of the files also pinpoint that the Court did not even need to decide whether the expert’s opinion was useful in the situation according to the Daubert factors due to the level of extreme negligence shown by Plaintiff (Order granting defendants’ motion for summary judgment 2010).

Type of Trial

Farias v. Mr. Heater, Inc., et al. (2010) was a bench trial. Farias asked the Court to engage the jury in the decision-making process, claiming that the factual evidence was sufficient. However, Plaintiff’s request to review the case with a jury was denied due to the absence of a genuine issue (Farias v. Mr. Heater, Inc., et al. 2010). In this case, Defendants succeeded in showing that there was no sufficient evidence to form a genuine issue. Thus, a summary judgment was chosen as an appropriate measure.

Motions and Results

The expert’s opinion was not reviewed according to Daubert challenges as was mentioned above. Therefore, there were no similar expert testimonies in the case, and Vigilante’s claims were dismissed as inapplicable. Plaintiff’s motion to examine this case during a jury trial was denied. On the other hand, Defendants’ motion for Summary Judgment was granted due to the lack of evidence supporting the need for further trials. According to the case’s discussion, the primary standard for Summary Judgments lies in the lack of evidence to make a case. By showing that the case did not have a genuine issue, Defendants had the ability to prove the need for a Summary Judgment.

Defendants opposed the claim that their warning signs were not “accurate, clear, and unambiguous” and turned to the state law that did not include any specific requirement for manufacturers to include bilingual instructions (Order granting defendants’ motion for summary judgment 2010, p. 12). The Court found that the companies’ instructions were clear and understandable as the packaging had a number of illustrations for safe use that explicitly showed locations outdoors. Moreover, the cautionary messages were obvious and transparent, although they were written in English. As Farias admitted that she could not read English, the text of these messages was irrelevant in this particular case. However, the presence of such words as “danger” and “caution” that Plaintiff recognized but chose to ignore add to the fact that companies gave their clients enough information in manuals and packaging of their products.

Case Outcomes and Damages Awarded

By applying a “totality of the circumstances,” the Court affirmed the Summary Judgment for Defendants and dismissed the case with prejudice, negating all further appeals (Drahos et al. 2014, p. 30). The jurisdiction was reserved for determinations of costs and fees. Plaintiff’s claims and arguments were denied. As a result, a Summary Judgment was granted to Defendants on both claims of Plaintiff – the “cause of action for failure to warn” and the “strict liability cause of action” (Zacher 2011, para. 8-9). The first was affirmed on the basis of Florida Law which did not require companies to include bilingual instructions on products. The second decision against the claims of liability was based on the fact that Farias failed to prove the defectiveness of the heaters. Both models were not broken with used in an unintended place, which does not fall under the scope of strict liability.

A similar case provided by Plaintiff as a reference was dismissed as it examined products directly marketed towards the Spanish-speaking population. In this example, the products lacking a description is Spanish were sold to Spanish-speaking communities, which made it reasonable to include a warning in the language of the buyer. As the heaters were sold nationwide and did not have a specific niche, the companies did not fail to comply with the federal law. Plaintiff was compensated more than $300,000 by an insurance company for her losses, and the case was an attempt to reimburse these costs using the companies’ money (Farias v. Mr. Heater, Inc., et al. 2010). However, the lack of the genuine issue in the case led to the Summary Judgment and did not include any awarded damages to Farias.

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Reference List

Drahos, M, Greene, M, James, J and Smith, L 2014, ‘Danger ahead: the changing face of failure to warn claims’, Trial, vol. 28, pp. 28-33.

Farias v. Mr. Heater, Inc., et al. (2010) 757 F. Supp. 2d 1284.

Order granting defendants’ motion for summary judgment 2010, Web.

Zacher, F 2011, Florida Federal Court rules manufacturers have no duty to provide bilingual warnings, Web.

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