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The Duty to Warn in Product Liability Cases

On June 28, 2016, international furniture manufacturer IKEA announced a mass recall of the MALM dresser in North America. IKEA had repeatedly warned customers of the risk of tipping in the past, as the popular dresser was blamed for three toddler deaths in the United States since February 2014.

After two child fatalities in 2014, IKEA launched a campaign in March 2015 called “Secure It!” to promote the use of wall restraints. By mid-2015, IKEA issued a repair notice for the MALM, advising consumers to restrain their chests and offering a free anchoring kit upon request.

Despite IKEA’s actions, the campaign message and notice supposedly never reached a family in Minnesota, and in February 2016 they lost their 22-month old child when he was crushed to death under an unanchored, five-tiered MALM dresser.

As a consumer who has had the same dresser for several years (in our toddler’s bedroom nonetheless), I was disturbed that IKEA took over three years to recall the product. At the same time, however, IKEA’s actions made me ponder whether the company truly failed to warn about the defects of its product. Aside from issuing public announcements, IKEA had also provided a clear warning that came with the assembly instructions about the danger of crushing injuries from tipping furniture.

Although the issue of IKEA’s liability will probably never be tested in Canada, a recent product liability case sheds some light on when a manufacturer has satisfied the duty to warn about product defects. In the case of Hans v. Volvo Trucks North America Inc. (where Leslie Mackoff of our firm represented the plaintiffs), Justice Davies considered the liability of the manufacturer and service provider for a Volvo tractor trailer truck. The court concluded that the defendants were liable for the negligent manufacture and design of the truck, and further held that they breached their duty to warn the plaintiffs of the dangers inherent in truck. The decision suggests that the breach of the duty to warn is established where: (1) the manufacturer was aware of a defect in its product; (2) the manufacturer failed to warn consumers of the defect / risks and take remedial action; and (3) the evidence indicates that the injured party would have followed through with the remedial action. In light of this approach, we are left to wonder what more IKEA could have done to satisfy their legal obligation regarding the MALM.

In the end, we can only speculate whether IKEA met its duty to warn about the dangers of a popular dresser, although many of us will agree that the product was recalled much too late in the day.

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