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$50M VERDICT IN FATAL BLAST

Oct 19, 2007

By DAVID FERRARA
Staff Reporter

BAY MINETTE -- A $50 million verdict, one of the richest jury awards in Baldwin County history, was handed down Thursday to the family of a Daphne man killed when his water heater exploded.

The panel of five men and seven women took less than five hours to reach its decision in favor of Richard Krantz's family.

Seconds after Circuit Judge Lang Floyd read the decision, Krantz's widow, Michelle Krantz, turned toward the gallery and embraced her father, Jack Holton, who had observed the 2½-week wrongful death trial from the front row. They wept along with their attorneys.

"Justice has been served for my husband," she later told a reporter. "If this can prevent that from happening to other people, then Rick's done some good."

During closing arguments a day earlier, attorney David Cain asked jurors to award the Krantz family more than $42.6 million. In addition, he left a dollar figure for the Krantz's two young children, Sophia and Hayden, up to the jury's discretion.

Krantz, 55, had gone to check on the natural gas-fueled water heater in his family's garage on July 1, 2005, because he couldn't get a warm shower.

Plaintiffs lawyers argued that the heater exploded because of a faulty valve, while defense attorneys for Milwaukee-based A.O. Smith, which built the heater, blamed the blast on a natural gas leak in the garage.

A juror said the panel disagreed with defense attorney Don Carlson, who suggested the jury give the Krantz family a little less than $1 million if they thought his client was responsible.

"We hope that it will make a change in the way they run their operation," said the juror, who requested anonymity, seeking to avoid being personally associated with the case. "And we hope that other manufacturers will see it. I don't think it was excessive at all."

Since 1980, the record jury award has been $65 million in Baldwin County, according to the Alabama Administrative Office of Courts. That judgment was awarded in 1993 to the estate of an elderly patient who died at a Montrose nursing home. The parties in that case reached an undisclosed settlement after the defendants appealed.

In closing arguments Wednesday, Krantz lawyer Joseph M. "Buddy" Brown invoked prayer and told jurors that the large verdict would punish the large manufacturing corporation, "catch them and expose them, bring them to their knees."

"So that you could do to them what David did to Goliath," he said.

On the day the trial began, a plumber who worked on the heater, and Mitchell Homes, which built the Krantz house, settled with the family for $1 million each.

Two of the five original defendants -- an A.O. Smith representative and his worker -- settled for $1,000 each earlier this week.

Ken L. Anselment Jr., another lawyer for A.O. Smith, said he was "absolutely stunned" by the jury's high-dollar award and expected an appeal.

After a small crowd filed out of the first-floor courtroom, Michelle Krantz watched her lawyers pull the water heater away on a dolly.

Though she testified on the witness stand that the pain lessens day by day, Krantz said the trial had rekindled a horrific memory.

"I wish I could erase it," she said.

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