BY: Guy Busby, Mobile Register
Family of burned child gets one of largest lawsuit awards in county's history
BAY MINETTE, A Baldwin County Circuit Court jury has ordered Rheem Manufacturing Co. of New York to pay $15 million to the family of a child burned in a fire near one of the company's gas water heaters.
On Monday, Baldwin County Circuit Judge Pamela Baschab officially entered Friday's jury award believed to be the second-highest lawsuit award in county history.
Andrew Scott was barely 2 years old when a sudden fire on the porch of his Elberta home in August 1991 caused major burns over most of his small body.
According to court records, the boy was playing near the water heater when other children spilled gasoline. The jury ruled that the fumes were ignited by the pilot light of the heater, located in a utility room off the back porch.
The lawsuit contended that the pilot light was so close to the ground that it too easily ignited flammable fumes from gasoline spilled nearby.
A lawyer for the Scott family said the case shows how dangerous such gas water heaters can be.
"You can be cleaning something in your home and the most passive appliance in the house is right next door with the fuse already lit," attorney Joseph "Buddy" Brown Jr. said.
Brown said the fumes from any petroleum product, such as gasoline, kerosene or some lubricants can be ignited if they get too close to a gas heater.
Brown said that because the verdict is being appealed, he has told Scott family members not to comment on the case. Attempts to contact the family Monday were unsuccessful.
One of the lawyers for Rheem, Andrew Clausen of Mobile, said that the responsibility for Andrew's injuries did not lie with the heater, but the gasoline.
"It's most unfortunate that Andrew Scott was injured, but that accident was not caused by the water heater," Clausen said. "It was caused by an open can of gasoline which was left on the porch while a 2-year-old child was playing unsupervised."
Clausen said the Elberta fire report said the fire was caused by the children.
Andrew was burned over 57 percent of his body in the explosion and fire. According to court records, third-degree burns covered his back, left arm, buttocks and both legs.
Brown said that since the fire, Andrew has had to undergo extensive treatments at hospitals, mostly at the Shriners Burns Institute in Galveston, Texas.
Andrew will continue to require treatment for years to come, Brown said.
The jury awarded the family $3 million as compensation for the boy's injuries and $12 million in punitive damages against Rheem, the second award meant to punish the company.