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Maryland District Court Dismisses Pet Owner’s Failure-to-Warn and Breach of Express Warranty Claims Against Nylabone Chew Toy Manufacturer
Dawn Stanley v. Central Garden and Pet Corp. and T.F.H. Publications, Inc.
In Dawn Stanley v. Central Garden and Pet Corp. and T.F.H. Publications, Inc., the United States District Court for the District of Maryland considered a products liability case involving Plaintiff Dawn Stanley’s French bulldog named Booker, who suffered an intestinal injury after ingesting a piece of a chew toy. That toy was manufactured by T.F.H. Publications, Inc. (“TFH”), a subsidiary of Central Garden and Pet Corporation (“Central Garden”), and marketed under the Nylabone trade name as the Double Action Chew Toy. Judge Catherine Blake dismissed Stanley’s strict liability, negligent failure-to-warn, and breach of express warranty claims against TFH, but allowed Stanley’s claims of fraud and unjust enrichment to proceed.
On the morning of March 27, 2011, when he was just over one (1) year old, Booker vomited violently, and Stanley rushed him to the Midway Animal Hospital in Millersville, Maryland. Although the hospital took x-rays, the veterinarians could not locate the cause of Booker’s discomfort. Unsatisfied, Stanley took Booker to the Anne Arundel Veterinary Emergency Clinic in Annapolis, Maryland and the Bayside Animal Medical Center in Glen Burnie, Maryland, neither of which could locate the cause of Booker’s discomfort. At 2:00 a.m. on March 31, 2011, Booker began vomiting blood. Stanley rushed Booker to the Falls Road Animal Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, where Booker underwent exploratory surgery that revealed a piece of a Double Action Chew Toy wrapped around Booker’s small intestine. Stanley alleged that she selected the toy because of TFH’s claims about the safety and effectiveness of their products.
Stanley sued TFH and Central Garden on behalf of a class of pet owners who also purchased Nylabone chew toys, alleging “countless examples” of similar incidents in which dogs have died after ingesting pieces of Nylabone products. Nylabone’s chew toys are marketed as being “especially designed” for cleaning the teeth of aggressive, powerful chewers, and are some of the best-selling pet products in the world. The product’s guidelines state:
Stanley alleged that these guidelines do not adequately inform consumers of the medical risks associated with the chew toys. She claims the warnings conceal “the fact that pieces of the Chew Toys often break off and are ingested by dogs, and much of the time are invisible to veterinarians.” Specifically, Stanley alleged five (5) claims against the manufacturer: strict liability, negligence, breach of express warranty, fraud, and unjust enrichment. TFH and Central Garden moved to dismiss the five counts against them. Judge Blake granted their motions in part and denied them in part.
With respect to the strict liability claims, the Court emphasized that the duty of the manufacturer is to give a “reasonable warning, not the best possible one.” Nolan v. Dillon, 276 A.2d 36, 40 (Md. 1971). To decide if a warning is adequate, Maryland courts ask if the benefits of a more detailed warning outweigh the costs of requiring the change. Here, the Court determined that it was clear that the guidelines accompanying the defendants’ chew toys warned of risks from ingesting pieces of the toys. The guidelines to the Double Action Chew Toy gave consumers a reasonable warning of medical danger if their dog ingested a large piece of the toy and did not need to notify the user “of the physical cause or the physiological nature of the injury he risks from the product.” Therefore, the strict liability failure-to-warn claim was dismissed. Similarly, the Court noted that negligence claims based on a failure to warn are nearly identical to strict liability claims based on a failure to warn. See Owens-Illinois, Inc. v. Zenobia, 601 A.2d 633, 640 n.7 (Md. 1992) (noting the “overlap of negligence principles in a strict liability failure to warn case”). Because the warning accompanying the Double Action Chew Toy was legally adequate, the Court granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss any negligence claims based on failure to warn.
The Court also dismissed Stanley’s breach of express warranty claims. In Maryland, to state a claim for breach of express warranty a plaintiff must allege: “(1) a warranty existed; (2) the product did not conform to the warranty; and (3) the breach proximately caused the injury or damage.” Robinson v. Am. Honda Motor Co., 551 F.3d 218, 223 (4th Cir. 2009) (quoting SpinCycle, Inc. v. Burcin Kalender, 186 F. Supp. 2d 585, 589 (D. Md. 2002)). In this case, the Court found that the warning statement did not represent that the specific Nylabone product Stanley purchased was safe for her particular dog, but merely indicated that Nylabone manufactures a wide range of chew toys and related products. Accordingly, the Court granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss the express warranty claim.
With respect to to Stanley’s claim of fraudulent concealment, the Court articulated that a plaintiff must show: (1) the defendant owed a duty to the plaintiff to disclose a material fact; (2) the defendant failed to disclose that fact; (3) the defendant intended to defraud or deceive the plaintiff; (4) the plaintiff took action in justifiable reliance on the concealment; and (5) the plaintiff suffered damages as a result of the defendant’s concealment. Green v. H & R Block, Inc., 735 A.2d 1039, 1059 (Md. 1999); see also My Nat. Tax & Ins. Servs., Inc., v. H & R Block Tax Servs., Inc., 839 F. Supp. 2d 816, 820 (D. Md. 2012). In the instant case, the Court determined that, taken in the light most favorable to Stanley, it was possible that the defendants had knowledge of the risks of their toys but continued to market their toys as safe for “powerful chewers” and “vet recommended.” Additionally, the Court cited to Ver Brycke v. Ver Brycke, 843 A.2d 758, 775 (Md. 2004) in concluding that Stanley’s unjust enrichment claims seeking money damages may be treated as claims at law. Therefore, the Court denied the defendants’ motion to dismiss the fraud and unjust enrichment claims against them.
Finally, the Court assessed whether Stanley’s claims were adequate to find that Central Garden and TFH were distinct corporate entities such that each could be held liable for Booker’s injury under the doctrine of paramount equity. Although Stanley argued that Central Garden “used the funds from [TFH] for its own expenditures,” and that Nylabone products feature the branding of both TFH and Central Garden, Maryland courts have been very reluctant to pierce the corporate veil on grounds other than fraud. Accordingly, the Court granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss Central Garden as a party.
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