Florida residents who dont read in English may be out of luck when it comes to product warnings. Despite the regions high percentage of households where Spanish or Creole is the preferred language, manufacturers do not have to provide multilingual safety warnings, according to a recent ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals.
The case stems from a 2009 incident when Lilybet Farias bought two propane heaters from Home Depot during a rare cold spell in Miami. Farias left one of the heaters on in her bedroom while she went to sleep. A fire ensued and caused $300,000 worth of damages.
Farias, a Cuban native, said she could not read English well enough to understand the warnings included in the packaging and did not understand that the heaters were intended only for outdoor use.
Farias sued manufacturers Mr. Heater and Enerco and distributor Home Depot, contending that they should have provided Spanish instructions on heaters sold in Miami-Dade County.
In November 2010, the U.S. District Court ruled that manufacturers and distributers are not obligated to provide warnings in languages other than English. The warnings included in the heaters packaging were adequate, the court said, and suggested that Farias exhibited willful ignorance in assembling the products without understanding the instructions.
Last week, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the earlier ruling, noting that even though Farias does not speak English, the pictures on the instructions were perfectly clear. The ruling also applies to assembly instructions and manuals.
The court got it right, defense attorney Gregory Cesarano said. It recognized that there was no general obligation in Florida for product manufacturers to warn their consumers in Spanish.
Steve Zack, the former president of the American Bar Association who was the first Hispanic leader of the organization, said the consumer should make sure they know how to use a product they buy, especially if the product poses hazards.
"Would you operate a product without knowing how to operate it?" Zack said. "You have an obligation to know what your limitations are and seek additional help."
Larry Cook and Madelyn Lozano, Fariass lawyers, did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
In its opinion, the court said it had considered a 1992 South Florida case in which the court held that a manufacturer had a duty to provide instructions in Spanish because the product in that case was marketed specifically toward Spanish-speaking consumers. However, Mr. Heater was under no such obligation in the Farias because it had not advertised its propane heaters in the Miami Hispanic media, wrote Judge James Lawrence King .