Gurrieri v. William Zinsser & Co., Inc.

321 N.J. Super. 229, 728 A.2d 832 (App. Div. 1999)
  • Opinion Date: May 4, 1999

LABELING—If an allegedly hazardous product is labeled in accordance with the Federal Hazardous Substances Act, state courts can not hold that the product’s label fails to adequately warn a user of the product’s hazards.

A consumer purchased a product to cover existing stains on walls. The product contained two percent methyl alcohol. A user of the product was injured, allegedly from inhaling the product’s fumes. It appears that a claim was filed, alleging that the product should have had more detailed warnings, and, because it was labeled inadequately, it failed to adequately warn the user of its dangers. Apparently, at the trial of the personal injury action, the injured party’s expert opined that the labeling was inadequate. The manufacturer argued that the label was in compliance with the Federal Hazardous Substances Act, and therefore federal law preempted state courts from applying a higher labeling standard than that required by federal law. The Appellate Division agreed with the manufacturer in two respects. First, it concluded that the product was labeled in accordance with federal law. Second, it held that the Federal Hazardous Substance Act preempted state law. The legislative history of the federal law clearly showed that it was to “provide nationally uniform requirements for adequate cautionary labeling of packaging on hazardous substances which are sold in interstate commerce and are intended or suitable for household use.” Specifically, the law, through a 1966 amendment, includes the following language: “No State or political subdivision of a State may establish or continue in effect a cautionary labeling requirement applicable to such substance or packaging and design to protect against the same risk of illness or injury unless such cautionary labeling requirement is identical to the labeling requitement under” the federal law. With respect to methyl alcohol, special labeling is required only when mixtures contain four percent or more by weight. Because the special labeling requirements were not required for this product, which contained only two percent methyl alcohol, the alternative standards for hazardous substances for use in the household were to be applicable. The label for the product in issue met those requirements. The Court further analyzed a large number of prior preemption cases, and found that the strong language in this particular federal law was itself dispositive of the issue. Further, it found that the Congressional intent to provide “national uniform standards for adequate cautionary labeling,” as expressed with the passage of the federal law, demonstrated Congress’ specific design to preempt state failure-to-warn labeling claims.