Spark from battery charger ignites gas vapors, causing burns

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Case in Point

October 9, 2012

Spark from battery charger ignites gas vapors, causing burns 

The plaintiffs alleged that the defendants improperly designed, manufactured, tested, and marketed the charger, which had an unreasonably high propensity to emit sparks during foreseeable use. The parties settled the case for $1.3 million. Ryan v. Sears, Roebuck & Co.

David Ryan, 46, was fixing a water pump for his employer when he inadvertently tipped over a plastic gasoline can, splashing gas onto his clothing. Several feet away, a live Sears battery charger suddenly emitted sparks, igniting the gasoline vapors, the gas can, and Ryan’s clothing.

He suffered second- and third-degree burns to more than 70 percent of his body, including his legs, torso, neck, arms, and hands. His fingertips, sweat and oil glands, and skin pigment were burned off. He was placed in a medically induced coma for several weeks while he underwent multiple skin-graft procedures. Nearly every area of his body that did not require skin grafting was used as a donor site. He remained hospitalized for several months, during which he developed neurological problems and suffered a possible stroke. He now has permanent, extensive scarring. His past medical expenses of about $1.2 million were satisfied by workers’ compensation for a gross payment of about $630,300. His future medical expenses are estimated at $250,000.

Ryan was earning about $1,000 weekly at the time of the incident. He missed six months from work and then worked part-time for six months before returning to a full-time schedule. His lost earnings of $41,000 were paid by workers’ compensation.

Ryan, his wife, and their children sued Sears, Roebuck & Co., which sold the battery, alleging negligence and breach of warranty. Sears identified the manufacturer as Acme Manufacturing Corp., and the plaintiffs added Acme as a defendant. The plaintiffs also sued Mueller Electric Co., which manufactured a metal clip that was a component of the battery charger, and the other defendants cross-claimed against Mueller.

Among other things, the plaintiffs alleged that the defendants improperly designed, manufactured, tested, and marketed the battery charger, which had an unreasonably high propensity to emit sparks in the course of reasonably foreseeable use. The plaintiffs’ experts were prepared to testify that (1) the sparking was caused by a loose connection between the battery terminal and the clip connecting the charger to the terminal, and (2) a defect in the metal composition of the clip’s spring permitted the spring to lose tension and gripping force. The plaintiffs sought punitive damages.

The defendants denied that their products were defective and argued that a spark from the charger was not the source of ignition. They also argued that any malformation of the clip and spring was attributable to product misuse, that these components were at least 17 years old, and that Ryan knew or should have known of the loss of tension in the spring for at least a year before the incident.

The parties settled for $1.3 million, including about $1.08 million from Mueller’s insurer and $225,000 jointly from Sears and Acme. In addition, the workers’ compensation carrier reduced its lien of about $709,500 to $2,000 and agreed to remain obligated for future medical expenses, subject to an offset under state law.

Citation: Ryan v. Sears, Roebuck & Co., No. 1:09-cv-10653 (D. Mass. July 9, 2012).

Plaintiff counsel: AAJ member John F. Finnerty Jr., Osterville, Mass.; and William D. Jalkut and Nisha Koshy Cocchiarella, both of Worcester, Mass.


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