A California couple faces criminal and civil liability for a wildfire that began with a malfunctioning pyrotechnic device at a gender reveal party.
The gender reveal party was at El Rancho Dorado Park, an area that’s very scenic and very popular with visitors. Surveillance video shows a smoke device malfunction and the starting of a fire.
Because of the conditions, four-foot-high dry grass, triple-digit temperatures, and a strong breeze, the flames spread quickly.
The couple frantically tried to extinguish the flames with water bottles, but to no avail. “You can’t fight a fire like this with a water bottle,” opined California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection Captain Bennett Milloy. “They had no chance after it started.”
The wildfire has caused considerable damage, forced tens of thousands of people to evacuate, and killed at least one firefighter.
Dangerous Products and Foreseeable Misuse
In terms of profitability, effectiveness is probably the most important product quality. But legally, it’s product safety, and nothing more.
That’s especially true of pyrotechnics, firearms, knives, and other products that can be considered inherently unsafe in certain circumstances.
Normally, companies are strictly liable for any injuries which occur because of such products. That includes a California wildfire.
The misuse doctrine is generally the only defense to these claims. Companies are not liable for product-related injuries if the victim misused the product and that misuse caused the injury.
The doctrine only applies if the misuse was completely unforeseeable. If the misuse was somewhat foreseeable, liability still attaches.
Vending machines are a good example.
Candy machines have labels clearly warning customers not to shake them. Inevitably, however, a customer will be upset because a Twix bar did not drop properly, ignore the warning, violently shake the machine, and cause it to fall.
Shaking a vending machine is a foreseeable misuse.
So, in this case, the vending machine company is legally responsible for the victim’s injury.
The same thing probably applies in the pyrotechnic context. The product probably contained labels warning about misuse. But a warning label is not a get-out-of-jail-free card. If the misuse was foreseeable, liability attaches, warning or no warning.
Negligence and Foreseeability
The foreseeability rule also applies in negligence claims, like car crash claims. The negligence foreseeability rule is rooted in 1928’s Palsgraf v. Long Island Railroad Company.
As a welcome distraction from an ongoing divorce case, Ms. Palsgraf planned to take her daughters to Rockaway Beach.
Unbeknownst to them, as they waited for their train, a late-arriving passenger tried to board another train on the other side of the platform.
In a scene straight from a Three Stooges short film, one railroad employee tried to push the passenger into the car from behind while another tried to pull him inside.
During all this jostling, the man dropped a package of fireworks. When the fireworks exploded, they knocked over a set of scales, which toppled onto poor Ms. Palsgraf.
The court eventually ruled that, although the railroad workers were negligent, the railroad was not legally responsible for the injury.
The workers could not have foreseen such a chain of events, so they could not do anything to prevent the injury.
In a dissenting opinion, one judge argued that Ms. Palsgraf was within the “zone of danger,” and tortfeasors (negligent actors) are legally responsible for any injuries which occur in this zone, whether they are foreseeable or not.
Today, in certain situations, the zone of danger rule applies, instead of the foreseeability rule. Some car wreck injuries are a good example.
If parents see their children injured, they are usually eligible for compensation for their emotional distress, even if they suffered no physical injury themselves.
In both negligence and dangerous product claims, damages usually include compensation for economic losses, such as medical bills, and noneconomic losses, such as pain and suffering.
Additional punitive damages are often available as well, especially in dangerous product claims.
Foreseeability usually matters in injury claims. For a free consultation with an experienced personal injury attorney in New York, contact Napoli Shkolnik PLLC.