Harbor Freight Faces Trial Over Sale of Allegedly Defective Gasoline Can

When someone is injured by a dangerous or defective product, Georgia law permits the victim to bring a personal injury claim against not only the product’s manufacturer, but in some cases against the retailer that sold the product, as well. More precisely, the seller can be held responsible if the evidence shows it had “actual or constructive knowledge that the product was unreasonably dangerous at the time of sale.”

Gomez v. Harbor Freight Tools USA, Inc.

To give an illustration of how the law is applied in practice, here is a recent decision from a federal judge in Athens, Georgia, in an ongoing seller liability case. This lawsuit centers on an allegedly defective plastic gas can purchased from a Harbor Freight store in Valdosta in 2012. The plaintiffs are not the original purchaser, but rather her neighbors.

In March of 2015, one of the plaintiffs borrowed the gas can with the original purchaser’s permission. The plaintiff then had the gas can filled with diesel at a nearby filling station. Later that day, the plaintiff had an “informal gathering in his backyard with some of his friends,” according to court records. At this gathering, the plaintiff “tried to start a fire by balling up some paper, putting it between the logs, and lighting it.”

When the fire failed to ignite–apparently because the wooden logs were wet–the plaintiff decided to “drizzle” some of the diesel from the gas can onto the fire pit. The plaintiff later testified that he had used diesel in this manner before without causing a problem. But on this occasion, the gas can exploded due to the fact there was still “some gasoline in the gas can” left by the original purchaser.

The plaintiff and his family subsequently filed a personal injury lawsuit naming Harbor Freight and related business entities as defendants, alleging they were negligent in the sale of the gas can. (The manufacturer of the gas can in question had previously filed for bankruptcy protection in 2011.) The crux of the plaintiff’s case was that the gas can lacked a “flame arrestor,” which is a device that enables gas to pass through it but stops any flames in order to prevent an uncontrolled fire or explosion.

In response, Harbor Freight argued it was not aware of any defect in the design of the gas can until 2013 at the earliest, when it received an email from a salesman who mentioned there was pending litigation against another company arising from the sale of gas cans without flame arrestors. The plaintiffs maintained Harbor Freight should have been aware of the problem at least by 2012–before the original purchaser bought her can–as that was when the manufacturer declared bankruptcy, again in part because of other pending lawsuits involving the gas cans.

Given these two conflicting timelines as to when Harbor Freight should have known there was a defect (or at least a potential defect), the judge overseeing the case denied Harbor Freight’s motion for summary judgment on the issue of “negligent sale.” The judge did dismiss claims for “failure to warn” and violation of any “implied warranty of merchantability,” however. With respect to the former, the judge noted that Harbor Freight could not be held responsible for failing to anticipate the exact scenario leading to the plaintiff’s injuries–i.e., pouring a mixture of diesel and gasoline onto a fire.