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No Duty for Bilingual Product Warnings

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By Stephanie Rabiner, Esq. on February 04, 2011 8:48 AM

The residents of the United States speak dozens of languages. With a large immigrant population, many of them speak little to no English.

These facts have prompted many lawsuits over the years in the areas of voting, education and work. Now a new question has been raised regarding product liability:

Are manufacturers required to place bilingual warnings on their products?

Lilybet Farias, a Spanish-speaking citizen, purchased two propane heaters from a Miami, Florida Home Depot. Speaking virtually no English, she was only able to read the word "caution" on the included warning labels and in the instruction manuals. Despite turning it off, one of the heaters malfunctioned and set her home on fire, reports the Abnormal Use blog. She sued the manufacturer on the theory of negligence for failing to place bilingual warnings on their heaters.

In a nutshell, a manufacturer has to take all reasonable steps to prevent and warn its users about reasonably foreseeable injuries. This requirement is often satisfied by warning labels and lengthy instruction booklets. However, the court decided that, because the manufacturer was only marketing to English-speaking consumers, it had no duty to take these steps for those who do not speak English yet purchase the product.

The questions surrounding bilingual product warnings don't end here. In Florida, it's clear that a product manufacturer only has a duty to warn the intended linguistic audience of their marketing campaigns and products. But what about when a product is marketed in a geographical area? Will manufacturers have to list warnings in every language spoken in that market? And what about areas with high illiteracy rates? Will they start receiving DVD instruction manuals?

America is a country founded and built by immigrants and as its diversity grows, bilingual warnings will have to be considered in some seriousness. While there are a thousand what-ifs, the pertinent question has yet to be asked:

How do we protect everyone from danger if there are no bilingual product warnings?

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