Caustic soda product liability appeal dismissed

11 December 1998
In the Full Federal Court in Sydney Justices Wilcox, Tamberlin and Sackville dismissed an appeal by Glendale Chemical Products Pty Limited against a decision of Justice Emmett to award significant damages* to a man burned by caustic soda.

Glendale had argued it was not the manufacturer of the product - which carried the label 'Glendale Caustic Soda' - but merely the supplier in that the product was 'packed by' Glendale.

The Court dismissed this argument, Justice Wilcox indicating it was inconsistent with the philosophy of the product liability provisions of the Trade Practices Act 1974.

The Full Court upheld Justice Emmett's decision in March of this year that the Glendale Caustic Soda had a defective label and that the injured consumer did not contribute through his acts or omissions to the injury that he suffered.

Although not required to do so the Full Court expressed a reservation about Justice Emmett's decision that there was no false or misleading representation as to the safety of the product. The Full Court was of the view that 'there is no textual or policy reason to give a narrow construction to the expression 'performance characteristics' in Section 53( c)' of the Act.
ACCC Chairman, Professor Allan Fels said the case was a warning for manufacturers. 'The philosophy of the product liability provisions of the Act is that a consumer who suffers injury can succeed against the supplier of the product even if the actual manufacturer of the product does not conduct business within Australia.

'It is important for manufacturers, suppliers and importers of consumer products to be aware of these provisions. Suppliers who re-package and brand the product with their name or logo are deemed as manufacturers under the Act. Likewise importers are also deemed as manufacturers.

'Manufacturers need to be aware that consumer products which they know or should know are inherently dangerous or potentially unsafe, should have sufficient warnings and instructions as to their safe use.'

The injured man suffered burns to his face and both eyes when he was hit by a column of water containing caustic soda. Caustic soda is an extremely reactive alkali which releases considerable heat when dissolved in water.

He had poured boiling water through the chrome cover of his shower recess waste pipe before sprinkling approximately one third of a 500g pack of Glendale Chemicals Pty Ltd Caustic Soda (sodium hydroxide) down his bathroom drain hole.

Glendale Chemicals Pty Ltd had at an early interlocutory stage of this matter given a court undertaking to amend its product labelling to clearly notify consumers of necessary safety precautions and direct consumers in their use of the product.

*At the request of the consumer, the amount of damages is not being revealed by the ACCC.
Release number: 
MR 224/98
ACCC Infocentre: 

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