The Fire Case: Cause and Origin Issue, a $18.25 Million Settlement, and The Lawyer

by William Jorden on June 27, 2011

A big part of our practice is helping people that have been affected by defective products. Product liability can be a very serious issue, as illustrated in the case outlined below.

William and Matthew JordenWhile researching house fire cases, I came across the case of Michael Joseph v. Lakewood Engineering and Manufacturing Company as reported by L.S. Sherman of Complex Litigation Consultants. The case involved a Philadelphia house fire that killed 2 and severely injured a third, resulting in a settlement of more than 18 million dollars with the building’s landlord and the manufacturer of a portable heater believed to have caused the blaze.  After discovering the fire, 23 year old Shereece Joseph took her 7 month old brother, Malachi Monroe, and placed him on the porch before running back into the house to try to save her 3 year old brother, Mikael Monroe, and 9 month old daughter, Rhayanna, the plaintiff said.

Joseph and Mikael died in the fire, while Rhayanna suffered disfiguring burns to most of her body and a brain injury caused by lack of oxygen.  The plaintiffs alleged that the fire had been caused by a defective rotary switch on a Sun 1 Model Radiant Portable Electric Heater manufactured by the defendant, Lakewood.  The subject model heater had been recalled by the Consumer Product Safety Commission for a separate defect in 2004, but during recall Lakewood sent a letter to CPSC saying it had discovered that rotary “switches on the returned heaters showed signs of overheating…within the normal expected operating range.”  Robert Miller, Lakewood’s corporate designee, testified that the company did find an overheating defect in the Sun 1 heater’s switch during the products recall.  The plaintiffs said the switch on the subject heater was never recovered but the wires that lead to the switch showed signs of divots caused by extreme heat.  Additionally the switch on one of the Sun 1 heaters, provided by Lakewood for testing during the litigation, showed signs of electrical malfunctioning.  In addition, the remains of the heater recovered in the fire, as well as the heater provided by Lakewood, showed evidence of high temperature limit control, a safety device designed to cut off power if the heaters temperature rose dangerously – had been designed with a heat threshold that was too low, causing it to be activated repeatedly.  This action caused a brittle fracture to be sustained on the switch, one that occurs without any deformation of the surrounding material.  Lakewood denied that the switch was defective and offered the report of fire science expert Scott Barnhill, who determined that repeated use of a high pressure limit switch would not cause it to fail; nor would a brittle fracture.  Lakewood also said that Larry Sacco, their electrical engineering expert, represented that there was no material in the switch that could have started the fire.  Instead, according to Lakewood, Philadelphia Fire Marshall, Bordes Ramseur, concluded in his report that the fire had been caused by combustibles placed too close to the heater, but the plaintiffs said Ramseur testified during a deposition that he had never considered the possibility of a defect in the heater.  Lakewood alleged that the fire had started because the heater had been placed by clothes that had been hung over furniture.  The plaintiffs however said there was no evidence to support that claim.  Lakewood was represented by James W. Ozog of Wiedner and McAuliffe in Chicago.  Ozog said that the case was “vigorously contested and Lakewood was prepared to disprove all of the plaintiff’s allegations.”  “This settlement was paid because of the horrendous injuries and losses suffered by the Joseph family,” he added.

“It would have been extremely difficult to convince a jury to set aside their emotions and compassion given the injuries presented by the plaintiff.  According to the plaintiffs, Rhayanna is currently 5, but her mental abilities are that of a 12 to 20 month old.  She has undergone 20 surgeries, mostly related to her burns and will require constant care for the rest of her life.  The plaintiff’s life care planning expert, Terri Paterson, estimated the cost of Rhayanna’s future medical care at between $13.7 and $17.2 million dollars.  The plaintiffs also retained Dr. Wayne Ross, a Forensic Pathologist, who concluded that both Joseph and Mikael would have experienced severe conscious pain and suffering for several minutes before they died.  Malachi has suffered emotional distress due to the loss of his brother and sister and the guilt of being the only one who escaped without sustaining a physical injury.  The plaintiffs also brought a claim against Jacqueline Gordon, the landlord of the building, based on the fire marshal’s report that the building contained no smoke detectors.  Gordon settled out of the case “very early on in this litigation” for $25,000.00, the limits of her homeowners’ insurance coverage.  Lakewood went bankrupt during the litigation and the plaintiffs had to have the US Bankruptcy Court lift the stay to allow the case to proceed.  Following a day long mediation with Judge Diane M. Welsh of JAMS, Lakewood agreed to settle for $18.25 million.  Lakewood’s policy limits were 21 million, so the plaintiffs would be able to collect the total amount of the settlement.

Although the 18.25 million dollar settlement in this case is significant, and will help pay for future medical expenses and piece back together shattered lives, no amount of money can compensate the plaintiffs in this case for their horrific loss and suffering. Still, this settlement would not have been possible had not the remains of the portable heater been recovered from the fire scene. The recovery was likely the result of a  lawyer’s fast action. In many instances when a lawyer for the victims is not involved early-on and is not part of the fire cause and origin investigation, crucial evidence is often overlooked or is lost in the removal of fire debris. Without the heater, no proof of cause and origin of the fire would have been possible and no settlement would have happened.

When the Bill Jorden Litigation Team is engaged for a fire case, we immediately take action to get to the fire scene with our cause and origin fire expert. We act to preserve all the important evidence we can. It is important that an attorney experienced in fire cases, such as we are, is contacted and engaged, at the earliest time after a fire.    In a fire case, the victims are often not in a position to think about hiring an attorney,  but those acting on behalf of a victim can. As this case exemplifies it is extremely important and valuable that the attorney is involved in the fire case as soon after the fire as possible.

 

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