Newspaper Not Liable After Herb Pastor’s Advice Sickened Reader

The column on rheumatic pain from an Austrian priest known as the Herb Pastor mistakenly said to apply a poultice of horseradish for hours, rather than minutes. 

Horseradish at a farm stand at the Naschmarkt in Vienna, Austria. (Image courtesy of Anna reg, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Courthouse News)

LUXEMBOURG (CN) — An Austrian newspaper whose columnist told readers to leave horseradish on their skin for hours is not liable after one woman got sick, the EU’s top court ruled Thursday.

Maintaining that a newspaper article is not a defective product under EU law, the European Court of Justice concluded that newspaper publisher Verlag is not liable for the injury suffered by a reader who followed shoddy health advice its columnist recommended. 

“Inaccurate health advice which is published in a printed newspaper and concerns the use of another physical item falls outside the scope of Directive 85/374 and is not such as to render that newspaper defective and the ‘producer’ strictly liable pursuant to that directive, whether they are the publisher or the printer of that newspaper or even the author of the article,” the Luxembourg-based court wrote. 

The article promoting the use of horseradish for alleviating the symptoms of rheumatism ran in the Dec. 31, 2016, edition of a Verlag publication called Kronen-Zeitung. Its author, Benedikt Felsinger, is a Premonstratensian priest in the Roman Catholic Church known in his home country as the Kräuterpfarrer or Herb Pastor.

Felsinger told readers to first rub a vegetable fat or lard on the affected area, then apply a layer of grated horseradish and to leave the connotation for two to five hours. 

“Hours” was a mistake. Because horseradish contains compounds that can cause skin inflammation and irritation, the mixture should have been left on the skin only for two to five minutes.

One reader who tried the method wound up removing the root vegetable poultice after three hours, doing so only because it had caused a severe skin reaction.

She brought a complaint against the newspaper, asking for 4,400 euros ($5,300) in damages. According to her, the column violated the 1985 Product Liability Directive covering defective products across the 27-member bloc. Ultimately the Oberster Gerichtshof, the Austrian Supreme Court, referred the matter to the Court of Justice. 

The Austrian court wanted to clarify whether or not a newspaper column containing incorrect health advice constitutes a defective product.

Thursday’s decision specifies that EU legislation cover products not services. “In the present case, it must be observed that the service in question, namely the provision of inaccurate advice, is unrelated to the printed newspaper, which constitutes its medium,” the five-judge panel wrote. 

The case now returns to the Austrian court for a final decision. 

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