Is our clothing dangerous? Some items are. Clothing that ignites quickly and burns rapidly can pose a serious risk of burn injury. The flammability of clothing is directly related to the type of fabric and fit of the item. Fabrics have a wide range of ignition and burn rates due to material type, weave, weight and finish. Further, the fit of a clothing item also plays an important role in how quickly the fabric will burn and the damage that it may cause.
Flammability Government Regulations
Are there government regulations or laws which govern clothing flammability? Yes, but clothing that burns like newspaper will pass the current flammability test for adult clothing. For example,16 CFR 1610 sets forth the general wearing apparel test, CS 191-53, which simply requires that the test samples take longer than one second to ignite from exposure of a small 5/8" butane flame to the surface of the sample. If the garment ignites, the time for the flame to move 5.5" along the fabric is measured. If the time is less than 4 seconds, it fails and is classified as rapid and intense burning.
The test has been criticized by the National Fire Protection Association ("NFPA") as imprecise and a misleading measure of flammability. As long ago as 1967, Congressman Helpern stated that "people are given a false sense of security in the standard, inferring that anything now manufactured would be free from the dangers of flash flammability." 113 Cong. Rec. 12330 9-21-67. Despite the criticism, no regulation has changed the standard in over 30 years.
The flammability standards for children's sleepwear, on the other hand, are based on a more realistic view of real world conditions. The Consumer Product Safety Commission ("CPSC") has been active in the area, having last amended the standards March 10, 2000. [65 FR 12924]. See also, 16 CFR 1615, 1616. A fabric passes the standard test if it self-extinguishes. The flammability standard can also be met by snug or tight fitting sleepwear. The requirements apply only to sleepwear, not play wear or other children's wear, and have age sensitive applicability as well (sizes 0 ` 6X; sizes 7 ` 14).
Clothing Flammability Litigation
Has there been much litigation over the flammability of the clothing we wear? Excessive clothing flammability has led to considerable litigation against clothing providers, which was largely believed to be responsible for the children's sleepwear standards in place today. The cases are generally brought under theories of negligence, strict liability, and breach of warranty. The following is a list of representative cases brought against clothing makers.
Perez vs. Mini-Max Stores, Inc.
A 5 year-old boy was burned when his thermal undershirt caught fire while playing with a cigarette lighter. The fabric complied with general wearing apparel standards. The Appellate Court reverses a dismissal of the plaintiff's complaint, stating that standards are industry-devised, not standards adopted by the CPSC after extensive inquiry, and will not preempt plaintiff's flammability claims. Perez vs. Mini-Max Stores, Inc., 661 NYS.2d 659 (NY App. Div. 1997)
GRYC vs. Dayton-Hudson Corp
A 4-year old was burned when his flannelette pajamas caught fire over a stove. A jury verdict of $1.75 million was affirmed by the Supreme Court of Minnesota on the basis that compliance with the general wearing apparel standard did not preclude liability for compensatory or punitive damages, and held statistical evidence admissible as well as evidence of alternative methods of treating the fabric to make it less flammable. GRYC vs. Dayton-Hudson Corp., 297 NW.2d 727 (Minn. 1980)
Allen vs. Long Mfg., NC, Inc.
While not a fabric flammability case, this South Carolina products liability case intimated that a whole industry may be negligent, and that an industry should not be allowed to set its own standard and be immune from liability if in compliance with it. Allen vs. Long Mfg., NC, Inc., 332 S.C. 422, 505 S.E.2d 354 (1998)
Howard vs. McCrory Corp.
A 3 year-old boy was fatally burned when his bath robe and pajamas caught fire in some unexplained way. The trial court entered judgments for all defendants because of the absence of proven tests for flammability on the subject pajamas or similar ones. The Fourth Circuit affirmed the judgment for only one defendant and reversed for the others, stating that compliance with the Federal Flammability Act standards were not determinative and the case should have been submitted to a jury. Howard vs. McCrory Corp., 601 F.2d 133 (4th Cir. 1979)
Apels vs. Murjani Intern, Ltd.
The plaintiff was burned when the blouse she was wearing ignited while baking. Despite the fact that the blouse met the flammability standards, the court denied summary judgment, holding that compliance with flammability regulations cannot be a complete bar to a suit for personal injury resulting from defects. Apels vs. Murjani Intern, Ltd., 1986 WL 122176 (D.Kan. 1986)
LaGorga vs. Evans and Kroger Co.
A minor was injured when the jacket he was wearing caught fire on a spark from a burning barrel of refuse flew onto his jacket. A jury verdict of $219,000.00 was upheld. The court stated that even if the young man's jacket burned as all others, the whole industry could be negligent. LaGorga vs. Evans and Kroger Co., 275 F.Supp. 373 (D.Penn. 1967)
Jelleff vs. Braden
Plaintiff was burned when the smock which she was wearing ignited upon contact with a burner of her electric stove. The DC Circuit affirmed a jury verdict for the plaintiff on breach of implied warranties. Jelleff vs. Braden, 233 F.2d 671 (DC Cir. 1956)
Raymond vs. Riegel Textile Corp
A 12 year-old was badly burned when her nightgown made of flannelette burst into flames within two seconds of contact with a hot grill on an electric range. An award of substantial damages for the plaintiff was affirmed. The fabric, which met the Federal Flammability Act test, was some evidence of due care, however, it was not determinative and a jury issue. Raymond vs. Riegel Textile Corp., 484 F.2d 1025 (1st Cir. 1973)
Clothing can and does catch on fire. Whether that fire is unreasonably dangerous depends on the fabric and fit of the clothing item. While there are federal laws and regulations, the courts have indicated that adherence to those standards does not necessarily alleviate the liability of a clothing manufacturer. Clothing sellers and manufacturers can be held liable under product liability and negligence standards should their clothing items catch fire easily and burn at a rapid rate.