Facts & Allegations
In early January 2009, a mother of four young children purchased an electric oil-filled space heater for her mobile home in Lacombe, LA. The home was owned by our clients, the grandparents of the four young children. On January 17, 2009, the space heater was on in the room where the children slept. At approximately 11:30 p.m., the mother checked on her children, who were in bed, before leaving to drive a friend home. The grandparents were at home, sleeping in an adjoining bedroom. When the mother returned home approximately 30 minutes later, she found smoke coming from the mobile home. The grandparents were awakened by someone banging on their door, and tried to rush into the children’s room to save them, but there was too much smoke and fire. The grandparents escaped through a bedroom window, while the four children perished in the fire.
The mother of the four children and the grandparents filed a products liability lawsuit in the Circuit Court of Cook County against the company that designed and manufactured the space heater. In the lawsuit we contended that the fire was started when the space heater tipped over onto its front face, where the control panel was located, causing a blanket surrounding it to catch fire when the heater overheated and a heater vessel breached, leaking oil vapor. We contended that even though the heater was designed with a safety tip-over switch, so it would turn off if it fell over, the heater failed to de-energize after tipping over. We contended that this failure constituted a design defect, and was the cause of the fire. Finally, we contended that the manufacturing company knew of the defect, but did nothing to rectify it.
Over 80 depositions were taken in this case. One of the most important witnesses was the Louisiana State Fire Marshall, who determined after an investigation that the fire started in the children’s bedroom where the space heater was. The Marshall based his conclusion on the fact that the remains of the heater were found burned through the floor of the children’s room.
The plaintiffs’ fire causation expert agreed with the Fire Marshall’s assessment, testifying that the heater was found in the area of origin for the fire, and likely was the cause of the fire. The expert opined that, according to testing performed to mimic the conditions of the fire, the heater could have started a fire by falling down on the control panel side. The expert further opined that the fire could not have been started in any other position.
The defense contended that there was no way for the plaintiff to prove that a malfunction with the heater was the sole cause of the fire. According to the defense experts, there were several other potential causes of the fire that existed in the children’s room, including cigarette lighters, plugs, a nebulizer (the children had pre-existing problems with asthma), the remains of a Christmas tree, a television and a DVD player. According to the defense experts, none of these items could be eliminated as a potential cause of the fire and it was possible that damage found on the heater was inflicted by being caught in a fire started because of another source. The defense experts testified that children playing with fire starting implements, such as cigarette lighters, was the most likely way for the fire to have started. The defense experts also testified that testing suggested the fire could not have been started because of heater malfunction, since physical damage found on the heater at the scene indicated that it had been in an upright position, and not tipped over as the plaintiffs contended.
The defense also alleged contributory negligence on the part of the plaintiffs for placing the heater in the room where the children were sleeping, failing to maintain working smoke detectors in the home, and specifically against the mother who had purchased the heater, for removing the base of the heater and installing wheels in its place. They argue that this alteration allowed the heater to fall over.
The mother of the 4 children sued for the wrongful death of her children, as well as the conscious pain and suffering they endured between the time the fire started and the time they actually died, which plaintiff’s experts contended was “minutes”. The defense forensic pathology expert disputed this, contending that the amount of carbon monoxide found in the lungs in the children indicated that the children probably lost consciousness from breathing in carbon monoxide before the room caught on fire. In addition to the children, the grandfather suffered from burns to his face and severe smoke inhalation, which required him to spend a week in the hospital on a respirator. The children’s grandmother escaped the fire with no physical injuries, but she and the grandfather experienced severe emotional trauma as a result of being unable to save the 4 children.
On October 10, 2013, after a trial that lasted over a month, a Cook County jury returned a verdict for almost $22 million in favor of the plaintiffs. The jury awarded $2.5 million to the mother for each child’s conscious pain and suffering, and $10 million to the mother for the loss of her children’s love, affection, companionship, grief and anguish resulting from the death of the children. The jury also awarded almost $2 million to the grandparents for physical injuries and emotional trauma.
Following the verdict, the parties agreed to a “high-low” settlement, precluding any post-trial motions or appeals. The terms of the high-low agreement were confidential.
The verdict was widely publicized in legal journals, including a feature article in “National Verdict Search” (Vol. 13, issue 3, March 2014) as well as a front page story on the case that appeared on the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin on October 14, 2013. Peter F. Higgins, the trial attorney for the grandparents was quoted in the Law Bulletin article saying, “I think one of the themes throughout the trial that the plaintiff presented was that the verdict will speak to the community as a whole, not just the individual plaintiffs involved, and that it was a case about product safety. This jury was looked upon as the watch dogs for our community.”