Duluth woman settles 'huffing' lawsuit against 3M
A jury had been expected to determine this month whether the former manufacturer of a dust remover product was responsible for Ashen Diehl's injuries.
DULUTH — Nearly a decade after she was paralyzed by a driver who passed out while inhaling dust remover, a Duluth woman has settled her years-long legal battle against 3M.
Ashen Diehl, 42, sued the Twin Cities-based conglomerate in 2018, six years after she was hit while walking along an East Superior Street sidewalk with her daughter. The driver admitted to "huffing" the chemical compound from an aerosol can before the collision, which has left Diehl permanently in a wheelchair.
Diehl's lawsuit, once dismissed before being revived by an appeals court, was finally set to go before a Duluth jury this week in State District Court. But the settlement was reached Monday night, the eve of a scheduled three-week trial.
Terms of the settlement were confidential and attorneys said they were unable to discuss the case.
Diehl, then 33, suffered a shattered vertebra, collapsed lung, broken ribs and bruises all over her body when she was struck by the car operated by Robert Nicholas Buehlman.
A woman who was riding with Buehlman at the time of the incident testified that she saw him put an aerosol can to his mouth and push the spray button. Buehlman then blacked out and drove onto the sidewalk, according to court documents.
Buehlman, then 29, of Bayfield, Wisconsin, pleaded guilty to criminal vehicular operation resulting in great bodily harm and four other crimes. He was sentenced to an above-guideline term of 10 years of supervised probation, including a year in jail, but a subsequent violation sent him to prison for nearly four years.
Diehl's lawsuit alleged that 3M had reason to know people were using its products while operating vehicles and failed to take adequate steps to prevent it.
Dust removal products manufactured by 3M and other companies are advertised for use on electronics, automobiles and a variety of household items. But they contain a pressurized gas called difluoroethane, or DFE, that, when inhaled, can cause almost immediate impairment, including unconsciousness. The same chemical is found in a variety of products, including cleaning agents, deodorants, hair sprays and air fresheners.
"The list of innocent people who have been harmed by individuals inhaling and becoming immediately impaired is frightening and staggering," Phil Sieff, an attorney for Diehl, told the News Tribune in 2020.
3M, which has since discontinued the dust remover product, maintained throughout litigation that it had no "duty of care" to Diehl and that it was Buehlman's conduct that caused her injuries. Judge Eric Hylden agreed, tossing the lawsuit in 2019.
But the case was reinstated by a split decision of the Minnesota Court of Appeals, which noted a manufacturer must take steps to protect against "unintended yet reasonably foreseeable use" of a product it puts on the market.
"This is the classic reasonable-person question," David Schultz, of the University of Minnesota Law School, previously told the News Tribune. "Would a reasonable person say this was foreseeable?"
After an extensive discovery process, both sides had more recently asked Hylden to grant summary judgment — a measure that, when no facts are in dispute, allows the court to forgo a trial and simply rule in either side's favor as a matter of law.
But Hylden ruled in March that the case should be heard by a jury, as there remained a "genuine dispute of material fact" that could allow a panel "to find either that (the collision) was, or was not, foreseeable to 3M."
The judge also had granted a motion from the company to place the names of Buehlman and his passenger on the verdict form. While not parties to the lawsuit, had the case gone to trial jurors would have been asked to apportion fault between them and 3M.