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  • Product Liability - Adequacy Of Warnings - Jury Instruction










  • Product Liability - Adequacy Of Warnings - Jury Instruction

    Lewis v. Sea Ray Boats, Inc., 65 P.3d 245, 250 (Nev. 2003):

    Respondent contends that warnings instructions in cases such as this one should be generally worded and that the adequacy of warnings should be left to the common sense of the finder of facts. Appellants contend that the district court erred by not instructing the jury with their more specific definition of "adequate warning." We agree with appellants.

    In American Casualty Co. v. Propane Sales & Service, we held that a party is entitled to have the jury instructed on all of his theories of the case that are supported by the evidence, and that general, abstract or stock instructions on the law are insufficient if a proper request for a specific instruction on an important point has been duly proffered to the court. We reversed in American Casualty Co. because the jury was left to guess "from general 'stock' instructions" discrete elements of proof "in the rather unusual context of a gas explosion case." However, in American Casualty Co., we also observed that "in some instances a requested instruction, although proper, will not be essential to the jury's understanding of the case."

    Under Nevada law, "strict liability may be imposed even though the product is faultlessly made if it was unreasonably dangerous to place the product in the hands of the user without suitable and adequate warning concerning safe and proper use." Inherent in this doctrine is that "a product must include a warning that adequately communicates the dangers that may result from its use or foreseeable misuse." More particularly, in Fyssakis v. Knight Equipment Corp., we held that adequacy of warnings was an issue of fact for the jury where an industrial strength soap manufacturer's warnings did not alert the user that the soap could cause blindness. In Allison v. Merck and Company, a district court entered summary judgment in favor of a manufacturer of a childrens vaccine. We reversed in light of our conclusion that the drug manufacturer was required to adequately warn parents of possible side effects of immunization, including blindness, deafness or mental retardation. Accordingly, we held that a general warning that an inoculated child could encounter rashes and possible brain inflammation was arguably inadequate and issues of fact remained as to the sufficiency of the warnings given. In remanding the Allison case for trial on the adequacy of the warnings, we rejected the notion that a drug manufacturer could, via a general warning, avoid liability as a matter of law, even where the product was either reasonably or unavoidably unsafe.

    In the instant matter, the purchasers of the boat were comprehensively warned about the dangers of carbon monoxide poisoning from exhaust fumes, fumes characterized by a distinctive odor. Here, however, the injuries sustained by Gasse and Lewis were not caused by exhaust fumes; they were caused by odorless and tasteless carbon monoxide fumes from the generator that powered the boat's air conditioner. Whether the warnings described above, which generally addressed dangers and symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning and specifically addressed carbon monoxide exposure secondary to engine exhaust and running the heater, sufficiently apprised Gasse and his co-owner of carbon monoxide poisoning from use of the air conditioner remained the primary issue of fact throughout the trial below. Thus, the text of the "warnings" instruction became critical to the jury's fact-finding mission.

    Here, the district court's "warnings" instructions provided very little in the way of guidance, other than to generally state that whether a warning is legally sufficient depends upon the "impression" that the warnings language "is calculated to make upon the mind of the average user of the product," and that the jury should use its common sense in resolving the issue. This instruction was not sufficient to assist the jury in resolving the liability issues based upon Sea Ray's alleged failure to warn. First, in Fyssakis and Allison, we refused to exonerate products manufacturers as a matter of law from strict tort liability based upon general warnings language. Second, these instructions left lay jurors, persons in much the same position as the users of the product at issue, to search their imaginations to test the adequacy of the warnings. Third, given that experts testified in this case to the nature and quality of the warnings that were given and their supposed behavioral impact, the jurors were entitled to more specific guidance as to the law governing the duty to warn in connection with consumer products.

    We therefore embrace the rule of law stated in the Pavlides instructions offered by appellants below, and hold that Nevada trial courts should advise juries that warnings in the context of products liability claims must be (1) designed to reasonably catch the consumer's attention, (2) that the language be comprehensible and give a fair indication of the specific risks attendant to use of the product, and (3) that warnings be of sufficient intensity justified by the magnitude of the risk.

    (footnotes omitted)

    *** Any law, statute, regulation or other precedent is subject to change at any time ***




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