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Gomez v. Harbor Freight Tools USA, Inc.

United States District Court, M.D. Georgia, Athens Division

April 18, 2019

ROBERT V. GOMEZ, II, KAITLYN ANN WILLE, and JENNIFER PRICE, Plaintiffs,
v.
HARBOR FREIGHT TOOLS USA, INC., CENTRAL PURCHASING, LLC, and HFT HOLDINGS, INC., Defendants.

          ORDER

          CLAY D. LAND, CHIEF U.S. DISTRICT COURT JUDGE

         Robert V. Gomez, II, Kaitlyn Ann Wille, and Jennifer Price (“Plaintiffs”) assert that they were injured when Gomez poured a mixture of diesel and gasoline from a Blitz portable gasoline can onto a mostly extinguished fire and the gas can exploded. Plaintiffs contend that the gas can was defective because it did not have a flame arrestor and did not contain adequate warnings. The gas can was manufactured by Blitz U.S.A., which declared bankruptcy in 2011. Plaintiffs brought this action against Defendants Harbor Freight Tools USA, Inc., Central Purchasing, LLC, and HFT Holdings, Inc. (collectively, “Harbor Freight”) because they assert that the gas can was purchased from a Harbor Freight store. The Court previously concluded that a genuine fact dispute exists on whether the gas can was purchased from Harbor Freight. See Order (July 16, 2018), ECF No. 52. Harbor Freight filed a second summary judgment motion, asserting that it is entitled to judgment as a matter of law on all of Plaintiffs' remaining claims. As discussed below, Harbor Freight's summary judgment motion (ECF No. 76) is granted as to Plaintiffs' negligent failure to warn and implied warranty of merchantability claims but denied as to Plaintiffs' negligent sale claim.

         SUMMARY JUDGMENT STANDARD

         Summary judgment may be granted only “if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). In determining whether a genuine dispute of material fact exists to defeat a motion for summary judgment, the evidence is viewed in the light most favorable to the party opposing summary judgment, drawing all justifiable inferences in the opposing party's favor. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255 (1986). A fact is material if it is relevant or necessary to the outcome of the suit. Id. at 248. A factual dispute is genuine if the evidence would allow a reasonable jury to return a verdict for the nonmoving party. Id.

         FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         Viewed in the light most favorable to Plaintiffs, the record reveals the following facts.

         In September 2012, Ronda Baldree bought a five-gallon Blitz brand plastic gas can from the Harbor Freight store in Valdosta, Georgia.[1] Baldree Dep. 78:24-79:10, ECF No. 100. Baldree used the gas can for storing gasoline and fueling her lawn mower. Id. at 96:4-24; 101:14-23 (stating that Baldree's son Tommy Lee and her daughter Raven Bennett fueled Baldree's lawnmower using the gas can, which Baldree kept in her garage).

         Baldree lives next door to one of her sons, Plaintiff Bobby Gomez. On March 6, 2015, Gomez asked Baldree if he could use her gas can. Id. at 58:1-5, 21-23. Baldree said yes, so Gomez went to her garage and borrowed the gas can Baldree had bought from Harbor Freight. Id. at 58:3-5; 75:22-76:4. The gas can contained a “small amount . . . of gasoline, maybe a cup or less.” Gomez Dep. 24:9-11, ECF No. 79-1. Gomez took the gas can to a filling station and put about a gallon of diesel in it. Id. at 24:14-19. He did not dump out the gas first. Gomez “thought that the diesel would have just completely diluted the gas, and it was -- it would have been like the gas wasn't even in existence . . . [b]ecause it was such a great amount of diesel compared to the gas.” Id. at 75:10-16.

         That evening, Gomez had an informal gathering in his backyard with some of his friends, including Wille and Price. Gomez had a portable firepit, and he tried to start a fire by balling up some paper, putting it between the logs, and lighting it. Id. at 35:1-2. But the wood was wet, and Gomez “realized that it wasn't going to catch.” Id. at 35:3-4. He “kind of waited a little while for it to go out and grabbed the [gas] can, released the nozzle, walked over to the fire pit, and just kind of drizzled some diesel around the outer edge of the firewood.” Id. at 35:4-7. He balled up some more paper and lit it. It “slowly caught the diesel, ” then “burned for a few minutes and went out.” Id. at 36:8-11. Gomez did not see any flames or embers, but “there may have been very small pieces of paper burning or smoldering.” Id. at 64:4-10. Gomez went to drizzle more fuel around the fire pit. As soon as he tipped the gas can, “there was an extremely loud hissing, ” and the gas can exploded. Id. at 37:1-4.

         Gomez knew that it would be dangerous to use gasoline on a fire because “[g]as is extremely flammable.” Id. at 40:9-17. Gomez was aware that there are warnings on the sides of gas cans, and he read and understood such warnings before March 6, 2015. Id. at 22:1-10. But Gomez testified that he did not know it would be dangerous to use diesel on a fire. When Gomez worked on his family's property as a teenager, he would help push together a pile of trash “and kind of douse it down with diesel and light it. . . . Never once did anything violent happen, no explosions.” Id. at 22:18-23:1. He had also previously poured diesel on a small flame, and the diesel put out the flame. Id. at 23:2-13. Gomez assumed that because there was mostly diesel in the gas can on March 6, 2015, he would not get injured by pouring it into the fire pit. He did not account for the fact that there was some gasoline in the gas can, and he was “under the impression that with that much diesel on top of [the gasoline], that it would have killed the dangerous properties of the gasoline.” Id. at 42:4-6; 52:17-19.

         The gas can had a number of warnings embossed onto the side. In relevant part, it stated:

DANGER GASOLINE EXTREMELY FLAMMABLE VAPORS CAN EXPLODE
NEVER USE GAS TO START A FIRE
KEEP AWAY FROM HEAT SOURCES VAPORS CAN BE IGNITED BY A SPARK OR FLAME SOURCE MANY FEET AWAY * KEEP AWAY FROM FLAME . . . ...

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