Duluth woman paralyzed by huffing driver thinks 3M should pay

Huffing a dust remover product made by 3M can cause you to black out almost immediately.

Huffing a dust remover product made by 3M can cause you to black out almost immediately. Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

Ashen Diehl of Duluth was walking down a public sidewalk in the summer of 2012 when a car ran a red light and plowed into her.

The driver sped off, leaving Diehl with a shattered vertebra, a collapsed lung, and some broken ribs. To this day, she’s paralyzed from the waist down, and will be in a wheelchair for the rest of her life.

That driver was Robert Buehlman of Bayfield. He allegedly hit Diehl because he’d just taken a pull from an aerosol can and passed out at the wheel. (A woman who had been riding with him testified to this.) He was sentenced to a year in jail and 10 years of probation near the end of 2012. He would later violate his probation and get sent to prison for about four years, according to the Duluth News Tribune.

Diehl is returning to court soon. This time she's not after Buehlman, but 3M, the Maplewood company whose keyboard cleaner product Diehl was huffing that fateful day.

3M's dust remover gets grit and crumbs out of nooks and crannies with a blast of compressed gas. But when inhaled, it can knock you out in seconds. That’s thanks to a chemical called difluoroethane, which is found in a lot of household cleaning products.

To discourage abuse, the can contains a bitter ingredient to make inhaling it less fun, and warns on the packaging that inhaling could cause “instant death.”

But according to a civil complaint Diehl filed in 2018, 3M's product is “unreasonably dangerous,” and 3M continued to sell it “despite its knowledge of misuse and abuse of the product.” Because of that, the complaint argues, Diehl was rendered permanently quadriplegic. She's seeking damages in excess of $50,000. 

At a district court hearing in January 2019, 3M’s lawyer, Jeanette Bazis, argued that 3M isn't any more liable for Diehl’s injury than, for example, an automobile manufacturer is responsible for speeding or a knifemaker is responsible for stabbings. Claiming it was, she said, would drum up an “avalanche” of new cases.

“This could be any of the household items that people use to get high,” she said. “Spray paint, spray cooking oil, butane, gasoline, nail polish remover, whiteout. I mean, you name it, people are going to try to misuse products to get high.”

Diehl’s lawyer, James Balmer, argued that none of those other products were before the court. About a month later, Judge Eric Hylden threw out the case.

Then in November, the Minnesota Court of Appeals voted to reinstate Diehl’s case.

“Accepting the facts alleged in the complaint as true, it was reasonably foreseeable that [Buehlman] would misuse the dust remover and become acutely intoxicated,” the opinion to reverse and remand says. “If it was also foreseeable that people who inhale the dust remover and become acutely intoxicated were a danger to Diehl, 3M had a duty to protect Diehl from foreseeable danger.”

According to the Duluth News Tribune, a trial has not been scheduled as of this week. 

"Ashen Diehl's injury was a tragedy," 3M spokesperson Tim Post said in a statement. "However, we believe 3M is not legally liable for the accident and intend to vigorously defend against this litigation."

This isn't the first time a company's been sued for a tragedy related to huffing. In 2018, a man vacationing in Delray Beach lost his wife and young children after a Chevy Silverado driven by a man huffing "Dust-Off," a product similar to 3M's in this case, hit their rental minivan. He decided to sue the manufacturer, and Walmart, which sold the can to the driver.