Ferlito v. Johnson & Johnson Products, Inc.
771 F. Supp. 196 (U.S. District Ct., Eastern District of Michigan 1991)
Plaintiffs Susan and Frank Ferlito, husband and wife, attended a Halloween party in 1984 dressed as Mary (Mrs. Ferlito) and her little lamb (Mr. Ferlito). Mrs. Ferlito had constructed a lamb costume for her husband by gluing cotton batting manufactured by defendant Johnson & Johnson Products (“JJP”) to a suit of long underwear. She had also used defendant’s product to fashion a headpiece, complete with ears. The costume covered Mr. Ferlito from his head to his ankles, except for his face and hands, which were blackened with Halloween paint. At the party Mr. Ferlito attempted to light his cigarette by using a butane lighter. The flame passed close to his left arm, and the cotton batting on his left sleeve ignited. Plaintiffs sued defendant for injuries they suffered from burns which covered approximately one-third of Mr. Ferlito’s body.
Following a jury verdict entered for plaintiffs November 2, 1989, the Honorable Ralph M. Freeman entered a judgment for plaintiff Frank Ferlito in the amount of $555,000 and for plaintiff Susan Ferlito in the amount of $ 70,000. Judgment was entered November 7, 1989. Subsequently, on November 16, 1989, defendant JJP filed a timely motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 50(b) or, in the alternative, for new trial. Plaintiffs filed their response to defendant’s motion December 18, 1989; and defendant filed a reply January 4, 1990. Before reaching a decision on this motion, Judge Freeman died. The case was reassigned to this court April 12, 1990.
MOTION FOR JUDGMENT NOTWITHSTANDING THE VERDICT
Defendant JJP filed two motions for a directed verdict, the first on October 27, 1989, at the close of plaintiffs’ proofs, and the second on October 30, 1989, at the close of defendant’s proofs. Judge Freeman denied both motions without prejudice. Judgment for plaintiffs was entered November 7, 1989; and defendant’s instant motion, filed November 16, 1989, was filed in a timely manner.
The standard for determining whether to grant a j.n.o.v. is identical to the standard for evaluating a motion for directed verdict:
In determining whether the evidence is sufficient, the trial court may neither weigh the evidence, pass on the credibility of witnesses nor substitute its judgment for that of the jury. Rather, the evidence must be viewed in the light most favorable to the party against whom the motion is made, drawing from that evidence all reasonable inferences in his favor. If after reviewing the evidence…the trial court is of the opinion that reasonable minds could not come to the result reached by the jury, then the motion for j.n.o.v. should be granted.
To recover in a “failure to warn” product liability action, a plaintiff must prove each of the following four elements of negligence: (1) that the defendant owed a duty to the plaintiff, (2) that the defendant violated that duty, (3) that the defendant’s breach of that duty was a proximate cause of the damages suffered by the plaintiff, and (4) that the plaintiff suffered damages.
To establish a prima facie case that a manufacturer’s breach of its duty to warn was a proximate cause of an injury sustained, a plaintiff must present evidence that the product would have been used differently had the proffered warnings been given. 1 [Citations omitted] In the absence of evidence that a warning would have prevented the harm complained of by altering the plaintiff’s conduct, the failure to warn cannot be deemed a proximate cause of the plaintiff’s injury as a matter of law. [In accordance with procedure in a diversity of citizenship case, such as this one, the court cites Michigan case law as the basis for its legal interpretation.]
A manufacturer has a duty “to warn the purchasers or users of its product about dangers associated with intended use.” Conversely, a manufacturer has no duty to warn of a danger arising from an unforeseeable misuse of its product. [Citation] Thus, whether a manufacturer has a duty to warn depends on whether the use of the product and the injury sustained by it are foreseeable. Gootee v. Colt Industries Inc., 712 F.2d 1057, 1065 (6th Cir. 1983); Owens v. Allis-Chalmers Corp., 414 Mich. 413, 425, 326 N.W.2d 372 (1982). Whether a plaintiff’s use of a product is foreseeable is a legal question to be resolved by the court. Trotter, supra. Whether the resulting injury is foreseeable is a question of fact for the jury. 2 Thomas v. International Harvester Co., 57 Mich. App. 79, 225 N.W.2d 175 (1974).
In the instant action no reasonable jury could find that JJP’s failure to warn of the flammability of cotton batting was a proximate cause of plaintiffs’ injuries because plaintiffs failed to offer any evidence to establish that a flammability warning on JJP’s cotton batting would have dissuaded them from using the product in the manner that they did.
Plaintiffs repeatedly stated in their response brief that plaintiff Susan Ferlito testified that “she would never again use cotton batting to make a costume…However, a review of the trial transcript reveals that plaintiff Susan Ferlito never testified that she would never again use cotton batting to make a costume. More importantly, the transcript contains no statement by plaintiff Susan Ferlito that a flammability warning on defendant JJP’s product would have dissuaded her from using the cotton batting to construct the costume in the first place. At oral argument counsel for plaintiffs conceded that there was no testimony during the trial that either plaintiff Susan Ferlito or her husband, plaintiff Frank J. Ferlito, would have acted any different if there had been a flammability warning on the product’s package. The absence of such testimony is fatal to plaintiffs’ case; for without it, plaintiffs have failed to prove proximate cause, one of the essential elements of their negligence claim.
In addition, both plaintiffs testified that they knew that cotton batting burns when it is exposed to flame. Susan Ferlito testified that she knew at the time she purchased the cotton batting that it would burn if exposed to an open flame. Frank Ferlito testified that he knew at the time he appeared at the Halloween party that cotton batting would burn if exposed to an open flame. His additional testimony that he would not have intentionally put a flame to the cotton batting shows that he recognized the risk of injury of which he claims JJP should have warned. Because both plaintiffs were already aware of the danger, a warning by JJP would have been superfluous. Therefore, a reasonable jury could not have found that JJP’s failure to provide a warning was a proximate cause of plaintiffs’ injuries.
The evidence in this case clearly demonstrated that neither the use to which plaintiffs put JJP’s product nor the injuries arising from that use were foreseeable. Susan Ferlito testified that the idea for the costume was hers alone. As described on the product’s package, its intended uses are for cleansing, applying medications, and infant care. Plaintiffs’ showing that the product may be used on occasion in classrooms for decorative purposes failed to demonstrate the foreseeability of an adult male encapsulating himself from head to toe in cotton batting and then lighting up a cigarette.
NOW, THEREFORE, IT IS HEREBY ORDERED that defendant JJP’s motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict is GRANTED.
IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that the judgment entered November 2, 1989, is SET ASIDE.
IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that the clerk will enter a judgment in favor of the defendant JJP.
- The opinion focuses on proximate cause. As we will see in Introduction to Tort Law , a negligence case cannot be won unless the plaintiff shows that the defendant has breached a duty and that the defendant’s breach has actually and proximately caused the damage complained of. What, exactly, is the alleged breach of duty by the defendant here?
- Explain why Judge Gadola reasoning that JJP had no duty to warn in this case. After this case, would they then have a duty to warn, knowing that someone might use their product in this way?