Indiana Federal Court Dismisses Products Liability Claim by Worker Whose Shirt Caught Fire, Allows Negligence Claim to Proceed: Hathaway v. Cintas Corporate Services, Inc.

398px-Flickr_-_Official_U.S._Navy_Imagery_-_A_Sailor_operates_a_plasma_cutter.jpgA welder filed a products liability lawsuit, claiming that defects in the shirt he was wearing caused it to catch fire while he was operating a plasma torch. The suit, Hathaway v. Cintas Corporate Services, Inc., also asserted causes of action for breach of warranty and negligence. The District Court for the Northern District of Indiana granted summary judgment for the defendant on the breach of warranty and products liability claims, but allowed the negligence claim to proceed.

Plaintiff Rex Hathaway worked for Quik Cut, Inc. as a welder and plasma torch operator. His employer used uniforms provided by the defendant, Cintas Corporate Services. The rental agreement between Quik Cut and Cintas provided that Cintas would furnish work clothes and provide laundry and repair services. Hathaway was operating a plasma torch, a machine used to cut various types of metal, on February 12, 2009. Sparks from the plasma torch allegedly caused Hathaway’s shirt, a 100% cotton shirt provided by Cintas, to catch fire, and he suffered severe burns over much of his body.

Hathaway filed suit against Cintas, asserting causes of action for negligence, breach of warranty, and products liability. His wife also brought a cause of action for loss of consortium. Hathaway alleged that the shirt had both a manufacturing defect and a design defect, and he claimed that Cintas was liable for failure to warn of the risk of injury.

Cintas moved for summary judgment on the negligence, breach of warranty, and products liability claims. The court first ruled that the plaintiff’s breach of warranty claim was subsumed by his products liability claims. The court held that because the plaintiff did not claim economic damage for the loss of the shirt, the breach of warranty claims were based in tort, and were therefore part of the products liability claim under the Indiana Products Liability Act (IPLA).

The court ruled that the plaintiff did not produce evidence to demonstrate any of the types of products liability he had pleaded. The plaintiff failed to produce evidence to show that the shirt was different from its “intended design,” nor did he show that Cintas failed to follow alternative designs that might have functioned better. The court applied the “sophisticated intermediary” doctrine to the failure to warn claim, finding that Quik Cut had agreed to warn its employees of flammability risks associated with Cintas’ uniforms.

The plaintiff’s negligence claim could proceed to trial, according to the court’s ruling. The plaintiff argued that the IPLA, which only applies to goods, did not subsume the negligence claim because the agreement between Quik Cut and Cintas primarily involved a service, not a good. The court considered the Indiana Supreme Court’s four-part test for determining if a contract involves goods or services, defined in Insul-Mark Midwest, Inc. v. Modern Materials, Inc., 612 N.E.2d 550, 555 (Ind. 1993):
1. The language of the contract;
2. The parties’ reasons for entering into the contract, based on their individual circumstances;
3. Whether the final product most resembled a good or service; and 4. Whether the purchaser paid a price for a good, or a fee for a service.

The court, relying largely on evidence provided by Cintas of its ongoing obligations under the rental agreement, concluded that the agreement was more for a service. As a result, it denied summary judgment on the negligence claim.

The personal injury attorneys at Parr Richey Obremskey Frandsen & Patterson represent the interests of Indiana accident victims and their families, helping them to obtain compensation for their damages. To schedule a free and confidential consultation with one of our lawyers, contact us today online or at (888) 532-7766.

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Photo credit: ‘Flickr – Official U.S. Navy Imagery – A Sailor operates a plasma cutter’ by Official Navy Page from United States of America MC3 Kenneth Abbate/U.S. Navy (A Sailor operates a plasma cutter.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.