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All product liability cases are difficult; however, a toxic product case (one which involves a substance that has caused injury during its use or application) poses more of a problem than most others. For example, some spray paints may contain toxic substances that are part of the product’s composition. Therefore, the product does not have a manufacturing or design defect, but may require special warnings. The warnings on such products may be covered by the Federal Hazardous Substances Act (“FHSA”), which requires hazardous household products sold in interstate commerce to contain cautionary labeling. 15 USCA 1261. (A “hazardous substance” is toxic, an irritant, or a strong sensitizer if the substance may cause substantial personal injury or illness as a result of any reasonably foreseeable use.)

The first hurdle in a failure-to-warn case is the pre-emption doctrine. The FHSA pre-empts any state causes of action seeking to impose a different or more elaborate labeling requirement from that required by the Act. Milanese v. Rust-Oleum, 44 F.3d 104 (2nd Cir. 2001). Defendants often argue that where the product is covered by the FHSA, no lawsuit can be brought in a failure-to-warn case. This is not true. The FHSA does not pre-empt all such claims; complaints that allege non-compliance with the Act are permitted and usually present a question of fact. Thus, the very first thing a plaintiff’s lawyer must do is to decide whether or not the label that came with the substance – if it has not already disappeared – complies with the Act. If the label does comply, any failure-to-warn case is pre-empted. If the label does not comply (which is often the case), then the lawyer can bring a failure-to-warn case.

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