Court Dismisses Product Liability Claim

Court Dismisses Product Liability Claim

In Chandler v. L’Oreal USA, the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania has determined that L’Oreal’s Regular Optimum Salon Haircare ® Defy Breakage Salon No-Lye Relaxer (“Defy Breakage relaxer”) is not a defective product and dismisses plaintiff’s claims.

Ms. Chandler had been using L’Oreal’s Dark and Lovely ® relaxer regularly for the past decade. On one occasion, the store was out of the product, so she elected to purchase L’Oreal’s Defy Breakage relaxer for the first time. She did not observe the exterior packaging, which showed a female model with straight hair, and contained the following small print language, “IMPORTANT – READ & FOLLOW THE SAFETY INSTRUCTIONS,” which she did not read. The safety instruction, in part, instructed the consumer to perform a “strand test” before relaxing. Because she regarded her hair as “coarse,” she left the product on for 20 minutes in accordance with the instructions for use for that hair type. When she rinsed off the relaxer, some of her hair fell out and went down the drain. Ms. Chander was diagnosed with traumatic alopecia, and despite treatment, her hair had not returned to its preinjury state.

Plaintiff sued L’Oreal asserting product liability claims for strict liability, negligence, breach of implied warranty, fraud and violations of Pennsylvania’s Unfair Trade Practices and Consumer Protection Law (“UTPCPL”). Defendants maintained that the plaintiff failed to establish evidence to demonstrate that the Defy Breakage relaxer was defective and that the product’s advertising contained any misrepresentations upon which she justifiably relied.

In order to bring a claim for strict liability, negligence, and breach of warranties, plaintiff must prove that the product was defective. A dangerous product can be considered defective for strict liability purposes if it is distributed without sufficient warnings to notify the ultimate user of the dangers inherent in the product. Davis v. Berwind Corp., 647 Pa. 260 (Pa. 1997). Under Section 388 of the Restatement (Second) of Torts, a manufacture has a duty to exercise reasonable care to inform those for whose use the article is manufactured of the facts which make it likely to be dangerous. In both strict liability and negligence claims, the plaintiff must show that the absence or inadequacy of the warnings was the cause of the injury. Igwe v. Skaggs, 258 F. Supp. 3d 596 (W.D. Pa. 2017). 

In this case, the Court determined that the plaintiff failed to establish sufficient proof to show that the Defy Breakage product’s warnings were inadequate, and no evidence to show that an adequate warning may have prevented her injury. The Court reasoned that the product’s warnings notified consumers that failure to follow the instructions may result in permanent hair loss. Further, the Court held that a more detailed warning would not have made a difference because the plaintiff did not read the warnings on the exterior of the package, and while she read the warnings/instructions inside the box, she ignored them.

Plaintiff also asserted a claim for a manufacturing defect, i.e. strict liability and breach of the implied warranty of merchantability. A manufacturing defect can be established by direct evidence of a breakdown in the machine or a component thereof or by circumstantial evidence of a product malfunction as long as plaintiff rules out abnormal use or secondary causes of the injury. Smith v. Howmedica Osteonics Corp., 251 F. Supp. 3d 844 (E.D. Pa. 2017). Under the “malfunction theory,” plaintiff may be able to rely on the following types of circumstantial evidence to show a defect: (1) the malfunction of the product; (2) expert testimony as to a variety of possible causes; (3) the timing of the malfunction in relation to when the plaintiff first obtained the product; (4) similar accidents involving the same product; (5) elimination of other possible causes of the accident; and (6) proof tending to establish that the accident does not occur absent a manufacturing defect.Barnish v. KWI Bldg. Co., 602 Pa. 402 (Pa. 2009).

Here, because plaintiff did not retain a portion of the product, it could not be tested to determine if it adhered to the product specifications. Similarly, she failed to establish a defect in the entire batch or line of relaxer products from which she purchased was manufactured. Finally, the Court did not believe that the plaintiff met her burden under the malfunction theory because she only used the product on a single occasion and admits that she did not adhere to all of the provided instructions and warnings in that she did not conduct a strand test to determine how her hair would react to the product or how long it should be applied. “Given these admissions, a reasonable jury could not infer that an unspecified defect caused a malfunction when the more likely explanation is the abnormal use.”

Lastly, the Court addressed the plaintiff’s UTPCLP and fraud claims. The UTPCPL provides a private right of action for consumers harmed by unfair methods of competition or deceptive business practices. 73 P.S. Sec. 201-9.2(a). In order to maintain a cause of action under the UTPCPL, a consumer must show that (1) she purchased or leased the good primarily for consumer purposes, (2) she suffered some ascertainable loss, and (3) the loss resulted from an unlawful method, act, or practice under the statute. Toy v. Metro. Life Ins. Co, 928 A.2d 186 (Pa. 2007). Plaintiff is also required to prove that she justifiably relied on the defendant’s wrongful conduct or representation and that she suffered harm as a result of that reliance. Yocca v. Pittsburgh Steelers Sports, Inc., 584 A.2d 425 (Pa. 2004). With respect to fraud, plaintiff must show: (1) a representation; (2) which is material to the transaction at hand; (3) made falsely, with knowledge of its falsity or recklessness as to whether it is true or false; (4) with the intent of misleading another into relying on it; (5) justifiable reliance on the misrepresentation; and (6) that the resulting injury was proximately caused by the reliance. Shuker v. Smith & Nephew, PLC, 885 F.3d 760 (3d Cir. 2018). Here, the Court determined that the plaintiff had not justifiably relied upon any of the alleged misrepresentations on the products’ packaging, as she did not read it.

Image courtesy of Unsplash.

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