Translation Services for Product Liability Litigation

Legal Translations for Product Liability Lawsuits

We’ve blogged about admissibility of professional language translation of foreign evidence in US product liability cases.  According to US law, a manufacturer or seller of a product can be held liable if they fail to adequately provide appropriate safety information to the users of its products. Considering that 56 million people in the US speak a language other than English and, of this number, 24.6 million speak English ‘less than well’, developing a method of effectively communicating product safety information to consumers is a legally complex area. In fact, in some circumstances, adequate safety information that is not effectively communicated to a foreseeable user (such as a non-English speaker) can be considered defective and the company held liable.

Of course the easiest way to effectively communicate product information to non-English speakers is to provide the information in their mother tongue or via commonly understood images. However, determining when exactly such measures are required remains unclear as US case law provides remarkably little guidance. In fact, there are very few cases that discuss the necessity to communicate to users who do not speak or read English.

In the first case on the matter, the US federal appellate court cited two characteristics of what constitutes a legally adequate warning. On the one hand, the warning must be in a form that it could ‘reasonably be expected to catch the attention of a reasonably prudent person in the circumstances of its use. On the other hand, the content of the warning must be of ‘such a nature as to be comprehensible to the average user and to convey a fair indication of the nature and extend of the danger to the mind of a reasonably prudent person’. Spruill v. Boyle-Midway, Inc. 308 F.2d 79 (4th Cir. 1962).

Needless to say, this decision does not answer the question as to whether manufacturers should assume that the ‘average user’ is English speaking.

Further, one can turn to a 1992 US District Court decision, which held that the matter of whether or not a manufacturer could have reasonably forseen that a product would be used by a non-English speaking person is an issue for the jury to decide. Further, it is the jury who must decide whether the product’s warning information should include, at the very least, universally understood images and whether or not a warning label must contain a foreign language translation in order to be considered ‘adequate’. Stanley Industries, Inc. v. W.M. Barr & Co., Inc, 784 F. Supp. 1570 (S.D. Fla. 1992).

The standard set in the Stanley decision has been reviewed on numerous occasions by various courts. In a 2007 case a court declined to follow the standard, citing it as an ‘isolated precedent’ in requiring the issue to be decided by a jury. Instead it opted to decide on its own, holding that since no Florida case, state or federal, had concluded that bilingual warnings were necessary, that there was no indication that Florida law imposed a duty to provide such labels. Medina v. Louisville Ladder and Home Depot, USA, Inc. 496 F. Supp. 2d 1324 (2007).

Regardless, within the numerous decisions holding that there was no duty per se, there is room for an interpretation that if a manufacturer is selling products in areas where the average user is unlikely to speak English, it could then be required to include images that identify the hazard and include a summary foreign language translation of the warning in the language of the area.

For this reason, despite the fact that there is no law or precedent mandating the use of foreign language translations of product safety information, manufacturers often include such information anyways – not wanting to fall between the cracks of a new reading of the law.

Up Next: Product Labeling Translation Requirements