Lack of flame arrester in gasoline container leads to fatal explosion

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Case in Point

December 14, 2010

Lack of flame arrester in gasoline container leads to fatal explosion 

The plaintiff sued the manufacturer of the container, alleging that it was defectively designed because it lacked a device that would have prevented an explosion that engulfed a family’s camper in flames, severely burning the father and killing his two-year-old daughter. The family recovered a verdict of about $4.32 million. Calder v. Blitz, U.S.A., Inc.

While on a camping trip with his children, David Calder, 37, attempted to start a fire in his trailer’s wood-burning stove by pouring a small amount of gasoline onto the wood from a Blitz model 11810 plastic portable gasoline container. The container exploded, and flames engulfed Calder and his 2-year-old daughter, Halie Parrish. Calder smothered the flames on Halie and ran outside to extinguish the flames on himself. By the time he returned, the entire trailer was ablaze. Halie suffered fatal burns. She is survived by her parents and two half-brothers.

Calder suffered second- and third-degree burns over 36 percent of his body and spent two months in a hospital’s burn unit. He underwent four skin-graft surgeries to his legs with skin from his abdomen and back. He also suffered emotional distress from witnessing his daughter’s fatal injuries. His past medical expenses totaled about $268,200, and his future anticipated medical expenses are estimated at about $249,800. A biomedical technician, he suffers from scarring and contractures that will reduce his work-life expectancy.

Calder, individually and on behalf of his daughter’s estate, sued Blitz, U.S.A., Inc., the manufacturer of the gasoline container. The plaintiffs alleged that the container was defectively designed in that it lacked a flame arrester—a wire screen placed at the opening of a container that prevents flashback by permitting liquids and vapors to flow out while preventing flames from passing in. The plaintiffs contended that flames from the wood stove followed vapors back inside the container, causing the explosion.

The plaintiffs offered evidence that another manufacturer began incorporating flame arresters in its metal gasoline containers as early as 1978 and in its plastic containers as early as 1988. They asserted that if the defendant had included a five-cent flame arrester in the container they purchased, which was manufactured in 1998 or 1999, the explosion would not have occurred.

The plaintiffs also claimed that Blitz knew since the 1960s that its cans would explode and that consumers were being injured and killed. Finally, the plaintiffs showed that Blitz had contracted with a company to provide “explosion suppression” material—a form of aluminum that could be placed inside containers to absorb and disburse heat, preventing flashback—but that Blitz had cancelled the contract for cost reasons.

The defendant disputed that it had manufactured the subject container. It also denied that the container exploded and argued that vapors from spilled gasoline ignited a fire that started on the floor. The defense also contended that Calder was negligent in pouring gasoline directly on the wood in the stove.

The jury found Blitz 70 percent liable and Calder 30 percent at fault. It awarded $6.17 million, including $3 million for Halie’s death and the remainder for Calder’s own injuries. After apportionment of fault, the verdict totals about $4.32 million. Counsel anticipates posttrial motions and a possible appeal.

Citation: Calder v. Blitz, U.S.A., Inc., No. 2:07-cv-387 (D. Utah Nov. 10, 2010).

Plaintiff counsel: AAJ members Hank Anderson and Gant A. Grimes, both of Wichita Falls, Texas; Benton Ross, also of Wichita Falls; and Donald J. Winder, Salt Lake City.

Plaintiff experts: Glen Stevick, mechanical engineering, Berkeley, California; Jason Mardarosian, fire cause and origin, Chicago; Alan Dimick, thermal burns, Birmingham, Alabama; and Kristy Farnsworth, life-care planning, Salt Lake City.

Defense experts: Craig Beyler, combustion science, Baltimore; and Carl Adams, burns, Durango, Colorado.

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