Oil company established affirmative defenses against liability in man’s death, COA rules in reversal

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An oil company sued by the widow of a man who died using its product established affirmative defenses against liability and should have been granted summary judgment, the Court of Appeals of Indiana ruled in reversing a lower court’s decision.

In February 2018, Boonville resident John Fritchley II attempted to remove the top of a 55-gallon metal drum containing automotive brake cleaner. He used a cutting torch and the drum exploded, blowing the top off and killing Fritchley instantly.

Superior Oil Company manufactures the brake cleaner, called S-1693, which is flammable. The cleaner is packaged into drums that are designed to handle flammable liquid, and Superior puts a warning label on top of each drum about the dangers of an empty metal drum and gives instructions about not flame-cutting, brazing or welding an empty container.

After manufacturing the cleaner, Superior typically sells it in drums to distributors. Superior ships a safety data sheet to every new customer, and distributors are required to forward the sheet to their customers.

The Court of Appeals opinion says it assumes Fritchley got the drum from a nonparty 10 the lawsuit, who obtained the drum from an auto dealership, which got it from one of Superior’s distributors.

Fritchley took the drum home, where he attempted to remove the top with a gas-cutting torch. At the time he purchased the drum, Superior’s warning label was still on the top of it.

Fritchley had worked at ALCOA Warrick Operations for 17 years and had participated in training presentations, many of which were repeated over the years. The company’s training records show Fritchley attended presentations about critical risk management, fire prevention and workplace hazards.

One of the presentations included examples of liquids that can be flammable, including gasoline, coatings/solvents, mill sludge, hydraulic oils and lubricating oils. The presentation also advised employees of the requirement to obtain a hot-work permit before performing spark or flame-producing operations, such as welding, cutting with a torch and soldering.

Another presentation examined container labels such as the one on the S-1693 barrel.

Fritchley’s wife, Samantha Labno-Fritchley, filed suit against Superior and two other parties, making claims of negligence, violations of the Indiana Products Liability Act, negligent infliction of emotional distress and wrongful death.

Superior asserted affirmative defenses in response, including three authorized by the act. Those included that the cause of physical harm was a misuse of the product and a modification or alteration of the product.

Superior moved for summary judgment, but the Vanderburgh Circuit Court denied the motion. The trial court certified the matter for interlocutory appeal.

The Court of Appeals agreed with Superior’s argument that it should have been granted summary judgment. It reversed the trial court’s judgment and remanded with instructions for further proceedings consistent with its opinion.

Under the Indiana Products Liability Act, there are three nonexclusive defenses to a products liability action: misuse of the product, modification or alteration of the product, and use of the product with knowledge of the defect and danger. According to the opinion, if Superior can establish any one of them, it would be entitled to summary judgment.

The Court of Appeals first looked at misuse.

The opinion states that the warning label on the drum “would have been clearly visible” to Fritchley as he prepared to cut. Because the drum was used in contravention of the warning label, the Court of Appeals concluded Superior established a defense of misuse.

“In light of the prominent and emphatic nature of the warning label on the Drum, Superior could not have reasonably expected that it would be misused in the way that it was,” the opinion states.

Labno-Fritchley also argued the drum was a defective product for posing an explosion risk and for not have adequate warnings. The Court of Appeals said the analysis was mostly about whether the warning label was adequate, because that would be the remaining question even if it’s assumed the drum was inherently defective for being explosive.

The court concluded the label was adequate for similar reasons that it concluded Fritchley misused the drum.

Further, the opinion states the warnings and instructions “would almost certainly have meant more to a person like John in light of his extensive training and background with hot works, hazardous materials, fire prevention, and the interpretation of such labels.”

Because it concluded the evidence established defenses of misuse and incurred risk, the Court of Appeals said it did not need to address Superior’s alteration defense.

Judge Cale Bradford wrote the opinion. Judges Melissa May and Paul Mathias concurred.

The case is Superior Oil Company, Inc., d/b/a Superior Solvents and Chemicals, Inc. v. Samantha M. Labno-Fritchley, individually; as next friend of Penelope Rose Fritchley, a minor; and as personal representative of the estate of John Henry Fritchley II, deceased, 22A-CT-1595.

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