PHILADELPHIA – A woman who suffered damage to her head from an allegedly defective hair relaxer didn’t find relief in the District Court and proceeded to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, where she also lost her claims.
Plaintiff Kim Chandler initially sued L’Oréal USA, Inc. and its subsidiary Soft Sheen-Carson, LLC for scalp damage she suffered after applying an at-home hair relaxer made and sold by those companies. Chandler alleged the product was defective under Pennsylvania law in three ways: Inadequate safety warnings, manufacturing defect, and breach of implied warranty.
Due to Chandler failing to present sufficient evidence of product defect, the District Court granted summary judgment for L’Oréal and Soft Sheen-Carson. Chandler appealed to the Third Circuit, before judges Thomas M. Hardiman, David J. Porter and Robert E. Cowen – with Hardiman authoring the Court’s ruling.
However, the higher court concurred with the District Court in this matter.
The Third Circuit sequentially addressed each of Chandler’s three theories, with the first being safety warnings: “The product’s packaging and instruction sheet clearly warn consumers that failure to follow the written instructions may result in injury, including permanent hair loss, the exact injury about which Chandler complains.”
The package does mention to consumers on more than one occasion to conduct a strand test, or “test the mixture on one hair strand before relaxing all hair”, which checks for “hair breakage or scalp irritation” and “determines how long to straighten the hair.”
Once the user tests how long it takes to relax one strand of hair safely, they are warned to “never leave the relaxer mixture on hair longer than the maximum processing time indicated in the strand test”, with “failure to follow instructions or warnings or other misuse of the product can cause serious injury to eyes or skin and can damage hair or result in permanent hair loss.”
But, Chandler admitted that she did not conduct this test.
“Chandler concedes she failed to perform a strand test. But she argues that despite her failings, a hypothetical reasonable consumer would be unaware of the risk of injury after reading L’Oréal’s warnings. In Chandler’s view, a reasonable consumer (and jury) could ‘find that the strand test exists merely to provide a means for determining the desired straightness, texture, or look of the hair,” not to prevent hair loss,” Hardiman said.
Hardiman explained Pennsylvania follows the Second Restatement of Torts, which provides the following: “Where warning is given, the seller may reasonably assume that it will be read and heeded; and a product bearing such a warning, which is safe for use if it is followed, is not in defective condition, nor is it unreasonably dangerous.”
Therefore, a reasonable consumer under Pennsylvania law does not expect the strand test to only “provide a means for determining the desired straightness, texture, or look of the hair.” Instead, such a reasonable consumer “reads and heeds” the warnings and expects exactly what they state, which is “Failure to follow instructions or warnings or other misuse of the product can cause serious injury to eyes or skin and can damage hair or result in permanent hair loss.”
Chandler further argued that a manufacturing defect caused her injury, with such a defect being “a deviation from a product’s intended design.” However, the Third Circuit said Chandler provided no direct evidence of such a defect – and while that is not always grounds to defeat a defect claim outright, Hardiman stated it was in this case.
“Circumstantial evidence alone is insufficient ‘if the plaintiff’s theory of the case includes facts indicating that the plaintiff was using the product in violation of the product directions and/or warnings. In such a case, no reasonable jury could infer that an unspecified defect caused a malfunction when the more likely explanation is the abnormal use,” Hardiman said.
Since Chandler did not abide by the product’s warnings, the Court declared that “no reasonable jury could find an unspecified defect in the hair relaxer.”
“Finally, Chandler claims L’Oréal breached its implied warranty of merchantability. But as she aptly notes, this claim rises and falls with her allegations of product defect. Having explained why the product was not defective, we summarily reject Chandler’s warranty claim. For the reasons stated, we will affirm the District Court’s summary judgment for L’Oréal and its subsidiary Soft Sheen-Carson,” Hardiman concluded.
U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit case 18-3277
U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania case 2:17-cv-01141
From the Pennsylvania Record: Reach Courts Reporter Nicholas Malfitano at firstname.lastname@example.org