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McGrath v. Rust-Oleum Corporation

United States District Court, Third Circuit

June 12, 2013

JOHN AND EMILIE MCGRATH
v.
RUST-OLEUM CORPORATION, ET AL.

MEMORANDUM

JOHN R. PADOVA, District Judge.

Plaintiffs John and Emilie McGrath filed this tort action against Defendants Rust-Oleum Corporation ("Rust-Oleum") and Home Depot U.S.A., Inc. ("Home Depot") after rags soaked with Watco Teak Oil Finish, which Rust-Oleum manufactured and Home Depot sold, spontaneously combusted and started a fire in the McGraths' garage. Plaintiffs have filed a Motion for Partial Summary Judgment, seeking a legal ruling that the Teak Oil Finish is a "misbranded hazardous substance" under the Federal Hazardous Substances Act ("FHSA"), 15 U.S.C. §§ 1261-78, because its warning labels do not comply with the FHSA's standards. Defendants have filed their own Motion for Summary Judgment, seeking judgment in their favor on all of Plaintiffs' claims, and arguing that the warnings on the Teak Oil Finish complied with the FHSA, which preempts Plaintiffs' state law claims. After holding argument on the Motions on April 29, 2013, we now grant in part and deny in part Plaintiffs' Motion, and deny Defendants' Motion in its entirety.

I. BACKGROUND

The record facts are as follows. On June 20, 2011, Plaintiffs' home was damaged by a fire that originated in Plaintiffs' garage. (Ex. H. to Defs.' Summ. J. Mot., at 1.) On the day of the fire, Plaintiff John McGrath had used Watco Teak Oil Finish, which Plaintiff Emilie McGrath had purchased at Home Depot, to treat some outdoor teak furniture. (Id. at 3.) After applying the Teak Oil Finish with rags, Mr. McGrath rolled up the rags in a blanket and placed them in his garage. (Pls.' Resp. to Defs.' Stmt. of Undisp. Facts ¶ 4.) For purposes of the pending Motions only, Defendants do not dispute that the rags spontaneously caught fire. (Defs.' Stmt. of Undisp. Facts ¶ 5.) A report of the Fire Marshal concluded that the fire had been caused by the improper disposal of the oil-soaked rags. (Ex. H to Defs.' Summ. J. Mot., at 3.)

The Teak Oil Finish can contained the following warning on the front of the can:

WARNING! COMBUSTIBLE LIQUID AND VAPOR. Read carefully other warnings on side panels.

(Ex. D to Defs.' Summ. J. Mot., at 1.) The side panel of the can also contained a warning, in red type, which read as follows:

DANGER: RAGS, STEEL WOOL OR WASTE SOAKED WITH WATCO®TEAK OIL MAY SPONTANEOUSLY CATCH FIRE IF IMPROPERLY DISCARDED. IMMEDIATELY AFTER EACH USE, PLACE RAGS, STEEL WOOL OR WASTE IN A SEALED WATER-FILLED METAL CONTAINER. FOR DISPOSAL OF RAGS AND UNUSED AMOUNTS OF PRODUCT CONTACT YOUR LOCAL OR STATE GOVERNMENT ENVIRONMENTAL CONTROL AGENCY.

(Id. at 3.)

The parties agree that the Watco Teak Oil Finish product is a "combustible" product as defined by the FHSA and the federal regulations thereunder and, as a result, it is a "hazardous substance" that is subject to FHSA regulation. See 15 U.S.C. § 1261(f)(1)(A) (providing that any substance that is combustible is a hazardous substance). Raw linseed oil is one of the components of Watco Teak Oil Finish, but linseed oil is not itself a "hazardous substance" as that term is defined by the FHSA. (Pls.' Stmt of Undisp. Facts ¶ 2; Defs.' Resp. to Pls.' Stmt. of Undisp. Facts ¶ 2; N.T. 4/29/13 at 6, 32.) Linseed oil is, however, the component of the Teak Oil Finish that has the potential to cause rags, steel wool, and/or waste products that are soaked in the Finish to spontaneously combust when discarded improperly. (Defs.' Resp. to Pls.' Stmt. of Undisp. Facts ¶¶ 5, 11.) The label of the Watco Teak Oil Finish does not reference linseed oil. (See Ex. D to Defs.' Summ. J. Mot.) The only component of the Teak Oil Finish that is listed on the product label is "mineral spirits, " which is itself a hazardous substance under the FHSA. (Defs.' Resp. to Pls.' Stmt. of Undisp. Facts ¶ 8.)

Plaintiffs' Complaint asserts claims against both Rust-Oleum and Home Depot for negligence, strict liability, and breach of implied warranty. All of the claims are grounded on a failure to warn theory, i.e., that the warning on the Teak Oil Finish label did not adequately warn about the product's risk of spontaneous combustion.

II. LEGAL STANDARD

Summary judgment is appropriate "if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). An issue is "genuine" if "the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby. Inc. , 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). A factual dispute is "material" if it "might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law." Id . In ruling on a summary judgment motion, we "must view the facts in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party and draw all inferences in that party's favor." Abramson v. William Paterson Coll. of N.J. , 260 F.3d 265, 276 (3d Cir. 2001) (internal quotation marks omitted). If a reasonable fact finder could find in the nonmovant's favor, summary judgment may not be granted. Congregation Kol Ami v. Abington Twp. , 309 F.3d 120, 130 (3d Cir. 2002).

"[A] party seeking summary judgment always bears the initial responsibility of informing the district court of the basis for its motion, and identifying those portions of [the record] which it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact." Celotex Corp. v. Catrett , 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). Summary judgment is appropriate if the nonmoving party fails to respond with a factual showing "sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial." Id. at 322.

III. DISCUSSION

Plaintiffs ask in their Motion for Partial Summary Judgment that we find as a matter of law that Watco Teak Oil Finish is a "misbranded hazardous substance" under the FHSA, because the product's warning labels do not meet all of the FHSA's requirements. Defendants, on the other hand, ask in their Motion for Summary Judgment that we enter judgment in their favor on all of Plaintiffs' claims, because the undisputed record evidence establishes that the product's warnings complied in all respects with the FHSA, which pre-empts Plaintiffs' state law claims.

A. The FHSA

The FHSA and its enabling regulations "provide nationally uniform requirements for adequate cautionary labeling of packages of hazardous substances which are sold in interstate commerce and are intended or suitable for household use.'" Richards v. Home Depot, Inc. , 456 F.3d 76, 78 (2d Cir. 2006) (quoting Milanese v. Rust-Oleum Corp. , 244 F.3d 104, 109 (2d Cir. 2001). A hazardous substance is defined by the statute as "any substance or mixture of substances which (i) is toxic, (ii) is corrosive, (iii) is an irritant, (iv) is a strong sensitizer, (v) is flammable or combustible, or (vi) generates pressure through decomposition, heat, or other means." 15 U.S.C. § 1261(f)(1)(A); see 16 C.F.R. § 1500.3(b)(4)(i).

In providing national standards for the labeling of hazardous substances, "[t]he FHSA preempts any state cause of action that seeks to impose a labeling requirement different from the requirements found in the FHSA and the regulations promulgated thereunder.'" Richards , 456 F.3d at 78 (quoting Milanese , 244 F.3d at 109); see Moss v. Parks Corp. , 985 F.2d 736, 740 (4th Cir. 1993) ("[I]f the plaintiff requests a label that is more elaborate or different than the one required by the FHSA and its regulations, the claim is preempted." (quotation omitted)). "Conversely, a state cause of action may proceed if the plaintiff can show that the labeling is non-compliant [with the FHSA's requirements]." Richards, 244 F.3d at 78 (citing Milanese, 244 F.2d at 109, and 15 U.S.C. § 1262(b)). Thus, a plaintiff may assert a state law "failure-to-warn claim based on the ...


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