The National Law Journal


Maker of Water Heater Told To Pay $ 15 Million

CASE TYPE: liability

CASE: Scott v. Rheem Manufacturing Co., 92-854 (Cir. Ct., Baldwin Co., Ala.)

PLAINTIFFS' ATTORNEYS: F. Downing, of Metairie, La.'s Gauthier & Murphy, and Joseph M. Brown Jr., of Mobile, Ala.'s Cunningham. Bounds, Yance, Crowder & Brown.

DEFENSE ATTORNEYS: F. Pierce and Andrew C. Clausen, of Mobile, Ala.'s Pierce, Carr, Alford, Ledyard & Latta P.C.

JURY VERDICT: $15 million

ON AUG. 20, 1991, Andrew J. Scott, then 2 years old, was playing on the back porch of his home in Elberta, Ala. An open can of gasoline was either turned or knocked over and gas spilled onto the porch. Andrew was standing in a puddle of gasoline when the vapors were sucked into the open flame of a natural gas water heater in the adjacent room, said his attorney, Edward F. Downing.

The open flame lit the vapors which, Mr. Downing said, "flashed back like a fuse to the pool of gasoline." In the resulting fire. Andrew suffered severe burns over half his body. He has had five surgeries to treat the burns; he likely will have five more before reaching adulthood, Mr. Downing added.

The boy's father sued Rheem Manufacturing Co., maker of the water heater, charging that it was defectively designed. The Rheem heater sucked in air from the floor, and, as such, "presented a hazard for the ignition of flammable vapors," Mr. Downing said. If the water heater had been elevated at least 18 inches from the floor, the ignition of the vapors likely would not have happened, he added.

"The cause of this accident was not the water heater," said defense attorney Andrew C. Clausen. "The proximate cause was that a gallon can half full of gasoline was left open on a back porch where a 2-year-old was left to play unsupervised." But, on Sept. 8, an Alabama jury rejected this defense and awarded Andrew $ 15 million, including $ 12 million in punitives. The defense will appeal.

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