Maker of Paint Remover Must Face Safety Scrutiny

CHICAGO (CN) – Paint remover Goof Off could be too dangerous to be sold to ordinary consumers even when used as instructed, the Seventh Circuit ruled, reviving claims that static electricity ignited the product.

Juan Suarez says he bought a can of professional strength Goof Off, a product made by W.M. Barr & Company, to remove paint from a concrete basement floor in a building he owned.

Goof Off’s primary ingredient is acetone, which is extremely flammable. The can warns users not to use the product unless the area is well-ventilated, and to keep it away from heat and open flame.

Suarez says he opened a window and two doors to the outside, but it is unclear whether he turned off the pilot lights for two water heaters and a furnace in a utility room in a separate part of the basement.

The product instructs direct users to “[a]pply directly. Agitate with brush.”

Following the label, Suarez spread the product onto the floor and scrubbed at it with a brush. He claims static electricity built up from his motions and a spark ignited a fire that severely burned his face, head, neck and hands.

A federal judge dismissed Suarez’s tort lawsuit, but the Seventh Circuit reinstated his claim Wednesday.

Suarez’s experts plausibly explained how the fire could have started even though he used Goof Off in accordance with its warning label, the 18-page ruling states.

“The crux of the Suarezes’ consumer-expectations argument is that an ordinary consumer would not assume that agitating Goof Off with a brush – as the product’s label instructed – would cause the product’s vapors to ignite,” Judge Ann Claire Williams wrote for a three-judge panel. “In support, the Suarezes rely on the electrical engineer they retained, who opined that the broom Juan used could have caused a static spark if it had brushed against Juan’s body, clothing, or surroundings, and on the fire investigator they retained, who concluded that a static spark is the likeliest source of ignition. This was enough to create a genuine issue of material fact as to consumer expectations.”

The Seventh Circuit found a very real possibility that Goof Off could be too dangerous to be on the market – especially when a water-based version of the product that is not flammable can also be used as a paint remover, although it does not remove paint as fast as the acetone-based version.

Williams also noted that Suarez “provided sufficient evidence that Barr failed to adequately test its product, insofar as Barr’s senior director of research and development acknowledged that he was unaware of any testing or internal discussions within Barr regarding static electricity being able to ignite Goof Off.”

The Seventh Circuit remanded the case to Chicago federal court for reconsideration of Suarez’s design-defect claims.

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