A Coos County man who suffered burns over nearly half of his body in a “flashback” gas-can explosion has filed a
$13 million lawsuit against Walmart, which he alleges sold him a dangerous fuel container, the manufacturer of which went out of business amid a wave of costly litigation linked to the product’s design.
The plastic can produced by Blitz USA burst and sprayed burning fuel onto Daniel Rowlett as he poured a gasoline- diesel mixture into a burn barrel while trying to start a fire on Oct. 21, 2013, according to the suit filed Thursday in
U.S. District Court in Eugene.
Blitz, based in Miami, Okla., was the largest seller of portable gas cans before it shut down in 2012 while facing product liability lawsuits filed by more than 80 people during a five-year period.
Like Rowlett’s complaint, many of the lawsuits accused Blitz of not fitting the spout of its signature gas can with an inexpensive safety screen that would have blocked flaming fuel vapors from shooting into the container and causing an explosion. Other manufacturers equip their cans with the piece.
Walmart was named as a defendant in some of the gas can suits. In 2013, the retail giant agreed to chip in $25 million to resolve the litigation, with Blitz paying another $136 million toward the settlement.
In regard to Rowlett’s lawsuit, a Walmart spokesman on Friday suggested the Coos County man’s own negligence caused him to be burned.
“It’s unfortunate when people misuse gas cans because tragic injuries can result,” company spokesman Randy Hargrove said. “Safety is a top priority, and we require the products we sell meet or exceed safety standards established by federal and state regulators. We’re looking into the complaint and will respond appropriately with the court.”
The statement echoes earlier declarations made by Walmart in gas-can explosion cases. Blitz cans had warnings stamped onto them, which cautioned people against using gas to start fires.
Rowlett is represented by attorneys Derek Johnson of Eugene and Jonah Flynn of Atlanta. Flynn has taken a number of similar cases in the past. He says Rowlett “didn’t do anything wrong” when he was injured.
Rowlett is a rural Coos County resident who worked as a mechanic before suffering burns over 45 percent of his body, Flynn said.
On the day of the accident, Rowlett decided to pour fuel into his burning barrel after mistakenly believing that he had failed to get a fire going a short time earlier, the attorney said.
The suit asserts that a vapor trail from the gas can ignited when the fuel came into contact with something burning in the barrel. The trail then rushed back into the can, causing it to explode violently and spray burning fuel onto Rowlett.
Rowlett’s medical expenses from the incident so far have totaled more than $324,000, according to the suit. Rowlett wants Walmart to compensate him for those costs, pay his future medical bills, and reimburse him for lost income. Flynn said Rowlett’s injuries will prevent him from returning to work as a mechanic.
The suit also seeks $10 million to compensate Rowlett and his wife, Janet, for pain and suffering. Additionally, Walmart should pay the Rowletts $3 million in punitive damages because it knew of dangers associated with the gas can and failed to provide “appropriate warning” to customers when the can was purchased, according to the lawsuit.
“It’s been absolutely devastating” to the Rowletts, Flynn said. “I’ve seen worse, but this is a very serious injury.”
Blitz cans have been associated with a number of deaths. In one notable case, a Utah jury in 2010 awarded more than $6 million to a man whose daughter was killed when his plastic gas can exploded as he poured gasoline into a wood stove to start a fire.
The man’s lawyers argued during trial that a flame arrester would have prevented the accident. The jury blamed Blitz for 70 percent of the accident while ruling that the can’s user was 30 percent to blame, according to media reports of the case.
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