When someone is injured or property is destroyed because a manufacturer did not warn about known dangers you may think your case is a slam dunk. But before you start your victory dance, make sure you can prove that the warning would have been read. Recently, the California Court of Appeal for the Fifth District overturned a jury verdict in excess of $12 million because the plaintiffs did not prove that the failure to warn caused their injuries. Huitt v. Southern California Gas Company (2010) 188 Cal.App.4th 1586. In Huitt, two plumbers were injured in a gas explosion due to a phenomenon called "odor fade" whereby the odorant added to natural gas was absorbed into new piping. Without the odorant the plumbers were unaware of the presence of natural gas. The plaintiffs argued that the gas company had a duty to warn that new pipes absorb the odorant.
The appellate court found that even if the gas company had issued a warning, there was no evidence that the plumbers would have become aware of the warning. The court distinguished this case from those dealing with products such as cigarettes, where a warning can be placed directly on the product. In contrast, natural gas cannot be seen and has no packaging. The court found that the plaintiffs did not prove how the gas company could have delivered an effective warning. Examples offered at trial were a notice included in the customers’ bill or a posting on the company website. However, in these hypotheticals there is no evidence that the plumbers would have received the warnings. The court reasoned that even if there had been a warning there is no evidence that the accident would have been avoided. Therefore, it does not make sense that a lack of warning caused the plaintiffs’ injuries. The court ultimately held that recovery was precluded because the plaintiffs failed to establish that a timely warning issued by the gas company would have prevented the accident.
In conclusion, it is not enough to prove that the manufacturer knew of a dangerous condition and did not warn of it. A plaintiff must also prove that the lack of warning actually caused the harm.