The Flynn Law Firm is pleased to announce the settlement of a Blitz gas can explosion and water heater explosion lawsuit filed in Dougherty County, Georgia which was recently featured in the Fulton County Daily Report.
On July 1, 2009, Jessica and Jeremiah Fenn leased a home from Jason Lawson and Lawson Investments in Albany, Georgia. The home was a traditional ranch house with no garage. It did have, however, a utility room that housed the washing machine, dryer, and a water heater manufactured by American Water Heater Company in 1998. Because there was no garage to store lawn equipment or gas cans, the Fenns stored those items in the utility room.
On the night of July 24, 2009 the Fenn children, after being put to bed, got up and made their way to the utility room of the home, apparently looking for their mother. There were two 2.5-gallon gas cans manufactured by Blitz U.S.A. stored in the utility room, one of which was knocked over by one of the Fenn children. The Blitz gas cans, unfortunately, were initially equipped with childproof caps that fell off the cans shortly after purchase in 2008. The AWHC water heater in the utility room was equipped with a defective “open pilot/open burner” system, which, because the water heater was not elevated (in violation of local building codes), was mounted within the device at floor level. Once the gas can without any cap on the spout was tipped, an explosive vapor/air mixture formed in the utility room which was ignited by the pilot and/or burner on the AWHC water heater. This lead to a low order explosion, severely burning the Fenn children
Prior to 2002, water-heaters used an “open pilot, open burner” design which left the pilot and burner of the device exposed to flammable vapors. After 2002, the water heater industry changed its design to include a flame arrester covering its pilot and burner to prevent the explosion of flammable vapors. In order for a gas-fired “open pilot, open burner” water heater to actually heat the water in its tank, the water heater must take in air from its base, often two inches from the ground, and pass the air directly over a pilot flame. Flammable liquids (such as gas) give off flammable vapors that are generally heavier than air. These vapors sink to the ground and when the water heater is functioning normally, will be sucked in by the water heater when it draws in combustion air. The vapors are then ignited, and the resulting fire can cause substantial burn injuries to those in the vicinity of the water heater.
The “flammable liquid problem” became well known to the water heater industry in the late 70’s when a report prepared by Calspan entitled “Investigation of Safety Standards for Flame-Fired Furnaces, Water Heaters, Clothes Dryers and Ranges” was published and presented to the Gas Appliances Manufacturers Association (“GAMA”). In that report, the authors noted that:
“In terms of frequency and severity of injury, the accidental ignition of vapors from flammable liquids was the number one hazard associated with the mere presence of the appliances considered in this study. The activity involved at the time of the injury was nearly always unrelated to the use of the appliance itself.”
“Adult victims generally realized that the liquid they were working with was flammable, but were totally unappreciative of the distance the vapors could travel and ignite. Children victims were usually imitating their adult behavior, e.g. ‘refueling’ a piece of equipment…often a toy. Gasoline was by far the most common liquid involved.”
Throughout the 80’s and 90’s, AWHC produced water heaters with open pilots and burners with the same basic design as water heaters from the 30’s and 40’s. The fire at the Fenn on home on July 24, 2009, was caused by a defective AWHC heater with an open pilot and open burner. The flash fire that resulted caused severe injuries to the Fenn children. Ja’El, age 1, suffered burns to 95% of her body, and died on September 19, 2009. Jeremiah Fenn, Jr. suffered burns to 99% of his body. He died on August 1, 2009.
On July 19, 2011, the Fenns filed their lawsuit against Blitz U.S.A., Inc., American Water Heater Company, A.O. Smith (which bought AWHC after the subject water heater was made), Jason Lawson, Lawson Investments, and Lawson Industries. Lawson Industries is an auto parts manufacturer owned by Jason Lawson and his brother Michael Lawson that Plaintiffs alleged was an “alter-ego” of Lawson Investments (their landlord).
On November 9, 2011, Blitz U.S.A. filed a petition for bankruptcy under Chapter 11 of the Bankruptcy Code in the United States Bankruptcy Court for the District of Delaware. This led to three years of litigation in Delaware bankruptcy court between insurance carriers, numerous personal injury victims with claims against Blitz, and other creditors.
On August 3, 2012, the estates of the Fenn children filed a separate civil action against the initial defendants (AWHC, A.O. Smith, Lawson Investments, Jason Lawson, Lawson Industries), Wal-Mart Stores, Inc.,. and Discovery Plastics, LLC. Wal-Mart was the retailer of the subject gas can; Discovery Plastics, LLC manufactured the spout on the subject can that, by virtue of the childproof cap that fell off immediately upon purchase, was defective.
Jeremiah Fenn, Jr. was three (3) years old at the time of this incident. Jeremiah suffered full thickness burns covering 99% of his total body surface area and inhalation injuries. Jeremiah remained in critical condition for one week before succumbing to his extensive injuries on 08/01/2009 at the Joseph M. Still Burn Center. During his stay, he underwent eight surgical procedures, including excisions and debridement of his wounds, skin grafts, escharotomies blood transfusions and left leg below knee amputation.
Ja’el Fenn was a 1-year-old child at the time of the tragic water heater fire at the Fenn home. Ja’el suffered full thickness burns covering 95-99% of her total body surface area and inhalation injuries. During her stay at the Joseph M. Still Burn Center she underwent 20 surgical procedures, including excisions and debridement of her wounds, skin grafts including cadaver, porcine (pig-skin) and GammaGraft, escharotomies, blood transfusions, permanent tarsorrhaphies and amputation of her right fifth toe. She remained in critical condition and clung to life for almost two months before finally passing away on 09/19/2009. She developed numerous skin, bloodstream, sputum and urine infections resulting in multi-organ failure that eventually resulted in her death.