The Montgomery Advertiser

The Associated Press

MOBILE -- Lance Inc. has been ordered to pay a Mobile couple $ 3 million in damages for its role in the death of their 10-year-old son, who was electrocuted while kneeling to retrieve candy from a motel vending machine.

Shawn Ramanauskas died Aug. 21, 1995, while attending a family reunion with his parents at a Holiday Inn in Clanton. Attorneys for Michael and Tela Ramanauskas of Mobile argued that the Lance machine was improperly connected to an ungrounded electrical outlet.

Other defendants in the lawsuit -- Holiday Inns Inc. of Atlanta, a subsidiary of Bass PLC of Britain, and the Coca-Cola Bottling Co. of Montgomery -- settled the case, without admitting guilt, in late September for $ 10 million.

An attorney for the Charlotte, N.C.-based Lance, Larry Harper of Birmingham, declined to comment on the verdict issued by a Mobile County jury Friday.

The Ramanauskas' attorneys, Robert Cunningham Jr. and Joseph "Buddy" Brown, had asked jurors for $ 100 million in punitive damages, claiming Lance still has not instituted procedures to train employees to make sure its machines are plugged into safe outlets.

"They're going to continue to do things the same way -- unless you do something about it," Brown said in closing remarks. "These guys are listening to you. They're listening. When the verdict comes in this afternoon, they're going to hear you."

Harper said he would make sure Lance executives were available to listen to the jury after the trial, but he urged jurors to reject punitive damages.

"There is no doubt that if Holiday Inn had taken action after the complaints ... this accident would not have happened," Harper said.

He argued that the motel staff had ignored complaints from guests that they were getting a painful shock from vending machines for two days prior to the boy's death.

A Coca-Cola machine next to the snack machine had dirty condenser coils, a broken grounding plug and a coin changer damaged by salt water, Harper said. Testimony revealed that both machines were plugged into an ungrounded, wrongly polarized outlet rigged by an amateur electrician.

But Cunningham said Lance also was at fault because it didn't make sure its machine was properly grounded. If it had been, the electrical current would have gone harmlessly to earth, he said.

Lawyers Involved: