On December 10, 2012, five inmates incarcerated at the Idaho Correctional Institution filed a lawsuit against several nationally known beer and wine companies, claiming that their addiction to alcohol lead to their crimes. The defendants included Miller Brewing Company, Anheuser-Busch Co., Adolph Coors Co., Brown-Furman Co., American Brands Inc., Pepsi-Cola, RJR Nabisco, Gallo’s Winery, Ernest Gallo and Julio Gallo. The five inmates sought over $1 billion in damages. The lawsuit is a product liability claim based on the theory that the companies failed to adequately warn that their products were addictive.
Manufacturers of products have a duty to provide adequate warnings to consumers about the dangers their products present. If a product manufacturer knows or should have known about a risk of injury and fails to adequately disclose it, then under the product liability law theory of “failure-to-warn” the manufacturer may be liable to a consumer who is injured by the product. However, an exception to a duty to warn is that manufacturers have no duty to warn consumers of commonly known dangers.
Lawsuits against Tobacco Companies
Since the 1950s thousands of people, who developed lung cancer from smoking cigarettes, filed lawsuits against tobacco companies. One of the centerpiece claims for many of these lawsuits was that for years the tobacco industry was aware of the addictive qualities of cigarettes, as well as the health risks associated with cigarette smoking, and they failed to warn the public. As a result, people developed lung cancer and other diseases. However, early lawsuits against tobacco companies failed as tobacco companies disputed claims that cigarettes are harmful to health and hid evidence that proved that they knew otherwise. Plaintiffs only started to win cases against tobacco companies when evidence proving that tobacco companies had knowledge of the dangers of cigarette companies for years and hid it.
Lawsuit against Alcohol Companies
While the Idaho lawsuit is reminiscent of the lawsuits against tobacco companies where plaintiffs claimed that tobacco companies failed to warn the public of known dangers of cigarette smoking, there remains an important difference. In the tobacco cases, the claim was that tobacco companies hid that they knew of dangers associated with cigarette smoking, and in fact marketed cigarettes as being safe. On the contrary, in the Idaho alcohol case the plaintiffs acknowledge that it is commonly known that alcohol is addictive. However, the Idaho plaintiffs contend that alcohol use presents dangers beyond what is commonly known and the alcohol companies failed to warn of these dangers. The danger is that there is a segment of the population that is predisposed to alcohol addiction and even one drink may lead to addiction.
A Flawed Argument?
The flaw in this argument is that it is impractical for alcohol companies to create a warning label that would adequately address all of the possible dangers that could affect people based on their genetic makeup. In January, 2014, the United States District Court for the District of Idaho dismissed the complaint with prejudice. However, the questions remain as to the impact of known dangers that could potentially affect only a small portion of the population. What duty should a company have to warn in this type of case?
Alcohol addiction can increase the likelihood of drunk driving accidents. If you feel you have an addiction to alcohol or any other substance please seek help in your area.
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