Products Liability – Catastrophic Fatal Fire

Patton & Ryan successfully negotiated a confidential high/low agreement prior to closing arguments and jury deliberation in a catastrophic fatal fire case involving a mobile home which resulted in the deaths of four children in Cook County. The terms of this confidential agreement ultimately prevented a runaway verdict from taking effect.

The Plaintiff and her five children moved into the north bedroom of a three bedroom mobile home in Lacomb, Louisiana about six weeks before the fire. The trailer was owned by the boyfriend of the Plaintiff’s mother who both occupied the south bedroom. Because the mobile home did not have a functioning central heater, the Plaintiff had purchased a portable oil-filled heater to heat the north bedroom designed and manufactured by Patton & Ryan’s client. The heater had been designed with only one set of wheels however, the Plaintiff had also purchased an extra set of wheels (from a junk store) to install in place of a stationary foot so she could move the heater more easily. The addition of this extra set of wheels made the heater less stable, making it more likely to tip over.

On the night of the fire, January 17, 2009, the Plaintiff left four of her children asleep in their bedroom in the trailer and left the home to pick up a friend. The Plaintiff and others returned about 45 minutes later to find the trailer afire and the four children trapped inside. When they broke open the window to the children’s bedroom, the fire fully engulfed the bedroom and kept them from getting to the children. The Plaintiff’s mother and her boyfriend were able to escape from their bedroom on the south end of the trailer through a window. However, the Plaintiff’s four children tragically died in the fire.

The Louisiana State Fire Marshal determined the fire started in the children’s bedroom and that the only competent source of ignition was the oil-filled space heater. Further complicating the defense of this case was that the Louisiana State Fire Marshal narrowed the fire’s area of origin to a three foot radius in which the oil-filled space heater was discovered after the fire.

The Plaintiff filed a product liability action alleging the heater was defectively designed, contained a manufacturing defect, and had insufficient warnings. The Plaintiff also alleged that the manufacturer breached an express warranty. The Plaintiff claimed the heater should have been designed with a 360 degree tip-over switch which would have turned off the heater if it fell in any direction. The heater used a 180 degree tip-over switch which would turn off the heater if it fell onto its left or right sides. However, the switch would not work if the heater fell in either a control panel down or up position.

Plaintiff’s theory hinged on the product testing and testimony of their experts who determined that the heater would rupture and start a fire if operated on its highest settings while placed in a control panel down position and completely covered with a blanket. Additionally, Plaintiff’s uncovered evidence that the manufacturer had prior knowledge of the danger associated with operating the heater in a control panel down position, that the manufacturer had previously manufactured a slightly different heater with a 360 degree tip-over switch and the manufacturer could have added a switch to the heater to effectively make a 360 degree switch.

Patton & Ryan was asked to co-counsel the manufacturer’s defense with less than five months to go before the beginning of trial. This occurred after over four years of litigation, which involved more than fifty depositions, an interlocutory appeal on the issue of forum non conveniens and expert discovery. Once involved, our aggressive approach ultimately resulted in the Plaintiff drastically lowering the settlement demand.

At trial, through extensive expert preparation, expert testimony, and utilizing demonstrative exhibits which educated the jury, Patton & Ryan was able to show that the physical remains of the heater indicated it was not in a control panel down position at the time of the fire. The Plaintiff’s experts were unable to contradict these opinions but maintained the heater could have momentarily been in an upright position after it burned through the floor of the trailer. Our efforts to convince the jury that the heater was not the cause of the fire were hampered by the lack of a clear alternative source of ignition.

Despite being brought in after years of litigation, Patton & Ryan’s strategy and tactics were effective in reaching a satisfactory result for our client. Through aggressive trial preparation, including limiting Plaintiff’s case through motions in limine, we were able to get Plaintiffs to negotiate in good faith and ultimately secure a high/low settlement agreement that was dramatically less than what the jury verdict would have resulted in.