What’s in a Warning: Liability for Injuries Hinges on Every Sentence

5/17/2013

What does a warning on a product mean to you?  Depends on who you ask.  To some consumers, a warning may be the overlooked small print on the back of a user guide to a recently purchased product.  To others, reading and understanding a warning may be the preliminary first step before a product is ever purchased, never mind used.  Manufacturers, on the other hand, view warnings much differently.  They rely on warnings to inform users of dangers and to minimize their liability from injuries sustained by the use of their product.  Manufacturers must warn of the hidden dangers associated with the use of their product or risk facing liability for those injuries.

Though this concept seems simple, not all manufacturers warn of the obvious or foreseeable risks associated with their products.  Manufacturers have increasingly found that their warnings can become outdated or inadequate.  A recent multi-million dollar product liability verdict against Riddell, a high-profile football helmet manufacturer, underscores manufacturers’ responsibility to adequately warn of the known and potential dangers associated with the use of their products.  Last month, a Colorado jury awarded an $11.5 million dollar verdict to a former high school football player, Rhett Ridolfi, who suffered severe brain damage and left-sided paralysis after he sustained a concussion during practice.  Ridolfi’s lawyers sued Riddell, the manufacturer of the helmet he was wearing at the time of his injury, along with the high school’s administrators and coaches.  Ridolfi asserted two common products liability theories of recovery against Riddell: (1) that the helmet Ridolfi was wearing was defective, and (2) that Riddell failed to adequately warn Ridolfi regarding the risks of concussions.

After a nine and a half day trial, the Colorado jury found in favor of Ridolfi and held Riddell responsible for twenty-seven percent of the total verdict, a sum totaling $3.1 million dollars.  Interestingly, the jury rejected the plaintiff’s design defect claim, but found that Riddell had failed to adequately warn Ridolfi regarding the concussions risks associated with the use of its helmet, despite Riddell’s warning label that “[n]o helmet can prevent serious head or neck injuries a player might receive while participating in football”.  The jury’s decision was likely influenced by Riddell’s knowledge that no helmet could prevent concussions.

In 2000, eight years before Ridolfi’s injury, Riddell hired a biomechanics firm, Biokinetics, to help design its newest helmet, the Revolution.  At that time, Biokinetics had been studying concussions with the National Football League for five years.  During the development of the Revolution helmet, Biokinetics shared the findings of its on-going study with Riddell: modern helmets – just like older helmets – could not prevent concussions.  Despite its knowledge of concussion risks associated with the use of its helmets, Riddell kept the same warnings on its new helmets.  In addition, Riddell marketed the Revolution as the first-of-its-kind helmet, designed to reduce the risk of concussions.  Riddell claimed that players who wore the Revolution were thirty-one percent less likely to suffer a concussion.  Riddell’s knowledge of the concussion risks associated with using its helmet, coupled with its inadequate warning, allowed a jury to find it responsible for $3.1 million.  Though Riddell has fought, and defeated, claims similar to Ridolfi’s in the past, the outcome of this case impacts the pending NFL concussion litigation looming over the company.

The jury’s verdict that Riddell failed to adequately warn of the known dangers of concussions with the use of its helmets highlights the fundamental point of warnings: product manufacturers need to warn of hidden risks associated with their products or face liability for those injuries.  Manufacturers can avoid liability simply by warning consumers of all known risks with the use of their product.  Though a warning may be sufficient at one point in time, expanding uses of a product or new information regarding its risks may necessitate additional warnings.  If you have any questions regarding Products Liability, the adequacy of your product’s warnings, or the Riddell case, please contact David Governo (dgoverno@governo.com) or William Gallitto (wgallitto@governo.com).


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