A Missouri federal court jury has found Sunbeam Products, Inc. partially responsible for serious burn injuries suffered by a bed-bound elderly woman who was sleeping under one of its electric blankets, when the blanket caught fire.
Barbara Kay of Morgan County, Missouri was sleeping under a Sunbeam electric blanket on October 28, 2008 when it ignited, severely burning 35 percent of her body. Kay had been invalided by a stroke 10 years earlier, which had paralyzed the left side of her body. Kay was also a smoker who smoked in bed, and kept her cigarettes, lighter and ash trays on a tray positioned on her right side, along with the controls for her hospital bed and electric blanket. At about 7 a.m., Kay awoke to pain on her left side and saw flames leaping out of the left side of the bed near her leg and hip. Kay, who was in her 70s, recuperated in the hospital for five months, but lost part of her left arm, as a result of her burns.
Fire department investigators determined that fire originated on the left side of the hospital bed, and narrowed the source of ignition to the blanket or a cigarette, but concluded that a burning cigarette was most likely the source of the fire.
In late June, however, a civil jury concluded that the blanket played a role in the fire, and in awarding Kay $2 million in compensatory damages, assigned one third of the blame to Sunbeam. In the second phase of the trial, the jury heard evidence of Sunbeam’s $1.9 billion net worth, to determine punitive damages. George McLaughlin, who represented the Kays with co-counsel James Crispin, asked for $1 each for the 30 million blankets Sunbeam had sold. But before the jury could decide, Sunbeam and the Kays reached a confidential settlement.
Kay’s blanket was supposed to be protected from ignition by a safety circuit known as Circuit 104, designed by Sunbeam in 2000 to replace a 1983 circuit design that had brought tens of thousands of fire complaints since its introduction. The old-style electric blanket relied on what is known as a positive temperature co-efficient (PTC) heating element, which was protected by a safety circuit known as Circuit 100.
“Circuit 104 is much better, but we’re still getting about 5-10 percent of the number of fire claims – 150 to 180 legitimate fire claims a year. The sales volume and the number of smokers haven’t changed,” said McLaughlin, of McDermott, Hansen & McLaughlin, LLP, of Denver, Colorado. “Circuit 104, however, isn’t perfect and fires do continue to happen. This is the first Circuit 104 case to go to a jury verdict, and Sunbeam lost – even though they assigned my client two-thirds of the blame. The jury believed that the product was defective. That was pretty significant.”
The history of Sunbeam, electric blanket and fires is a long and checkered one. Even as Sunbeam sought a patent for this technology, the company acknowledged that the PTC design was prone to fires: “Since the heating wire used in heating pads and electric blankets is typically made very thin and flexible and is subjected to repeated flexing from use, conductor breaks in the heating wire are common. When a conductor break occurs . . . [this] can cause a fire.”
Initially, Sunbeam relied on a triode-based sensing circuit, called Circuit 100, to reduce the fire risk. But, Circuit 100 proved to be inadequate to preventing electrical fires. It did not provide short circuit protection for all of the PTC wiring within the blanket, and it did not provide open circuit protection in some circumstances – the safety circuit itself sometimes caught fire. A former Sunbeam engineer, William Rowe Jr., who eventually (and briefly) became a plaintiff’s witness against Sunbeam warned the company in a September 20, 1983 memo that the safety circuit was not reliable enough, and that the company could expect about 500 blanket fires a year.
By the late 1990s, the company was actually receiving 1,500-1,800 fire complaints annually about electric blankets bearing the Circuit 100. The complaints ranged from pin-hole sized burns, to full scale fires resulting in deaths, injuries, and property damage.
In 1995, the CPSC opened an investigation into Sunbeam electric blankets.
And in November of that year, Rowe’s testimony helped persuade a jury to return a verdict against Sunbeam in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of
Oklahoma, and awarded punitive and compensatory damages in a case in which a PTC electric blanket fire caused a death. Sunbeam sued Rowe on the eve of his testimony, but eventually settled the case, paying Rowe to be a consultant, effectively barring him from being an expert witness for other plaintiffs. (Rowe continued to be subpoenaed as a factual witness in Sunbeam electric blanket cases until his death a few years ago.)
In 1997, the CPSC asked Sunbeam to stop the sale of blankets using its old PTC technology and pressured the company to develop a safer design, develop a corrective action plan or recall the old blankets. Sunbeam eventually launched a newly designed safety circuit called the “core-yarn” safety circuit or the Model 602. Sunbeam sold about 60,000 Model 602 electric blankets, but recalled them by June 1998, after this circuit also failed to prevent electric blanket fires.
Juries continued to find against Sunbeam. In January 1999, Sacramento Superior Court jury returned a $6.2 million verdict in a Sunbeam PTC heating element electric blanket fire case. By April of that year, Sunbeam electric blankets were the subject of an expose on ABC 20/20. Under pressure from its industry-supported standards and certifying agency, Underwriters Laboratory, Sunbeam finally replaced the Circuit 100 with a new, safer Circuit 104 in 2000.
Despite the jury verdicts, the bad press and pressure from the CPSC, Sunbeam, which sells about 3 million electric blankets annually, has never recalled any with a Circuit 100. Nor has it taken any steps to recall or redesign Circuit 104 in a way to prevent it from failing.
In a news article about the verdict, a lawyer for Sunbeam said that the company stands behind its product.
McLaughlin says he doesn’t think anything’s going to change until a jury trial goes to punitive damages.
“That might get people’s attention,” he said.