Explosion of lawsuits against gas can maker

Michelle Massey, East Texas Bureau Dec. 20, 2007, 6:48am

MARSHALL � Oklahoma gas container manufacturer Blitz USA is facing three new product liability suits alleging its containers exploded and seriously injured users. The company claims the fires were the result of the consumers' misuse of the gasoline containers.

Three suits against Blitz were filed on Dec. 17 in the Marshall Division of the Eastern District of Texas.

At the center of the allegations is a Blitz five-gallon plastic portable gasoline container, model 11833. In the three suits the incidents are similar � during the process of pouring gasoline on a fire, the gas container exploded severely injuring those involved.

The first suit, Case No. 2:07-cv-549-TJW, Arkansas resident Bradley Hice was hunting with friends in February 2004.

The original complaint states that when Hice attempted to start a campfire, the plastic gasoline container "suddenly and violently exploded." It states that Hice was covered with burning gasoline and burned over a large portion of his body. He was taken to Texarkana's Christus St. Michael's Hospital for emergency treatment and later airlifted to Little Rock's Arkansas Children's Hospital.

In Case No. 2:07-cv-551-TJW, Tyler resident Reginald Banks was clearing brush on some property and attempted to burn a pile of debris. According to the suit, when he tried to ignite the pile, the gasoline container exploded, covering him with burning gasoline and fire. Suffering burns to a large portion of his body, Banks was taken to Tyler's East Texas Medical center for treatment.

Fourteen-year-old Kingsland resident Taylor Delz attempted to use the Blitz gasoline container to start a fire in a barbeque pit. Case No. 2:07-cv-550-TJW alleges that the container exploded covering the teenager with fire and burning gasoline. After hearing the explosion, a neighbor rushed to Taylor and extinguished the flames. Suffering third-degree burns over 80 percent of his body, Taylor was airlifted to the Dallas Parkland Hospital burn unit. Two months later, he was transferred to Shriner's Burn Hospital for children located in Galveston were he remained for almost a year.

Blitz USA released the following statement to The Record regarding the litigation:

"Blitz U.S.A., Inc. is an American manufacturer located in Oklahoma which manufactures red plastic gas cans seen in many stores across the country. Several people have been burned in separate instances by misusing gasoline to start or rekindle campfires, trash fires, brush pile fires, or even fires in their indoor fireplace.

As a result of this misuse, Plaintiffs' lawyers have sued Blitz and other gas can manufacturers for plaintiffs' burn injuries. Blitz manufacturers its plastic gas cans in strict compliance with all applicable national standards.

While the injuries are unfortunate, Blitz denies any claim that its product is somehow responsible for these plaintiffs' injuries and maintains that these accidents could have been avoided had plaintiffs heeded the warnings on the gas can. Blitz intends to vigorously defend its product in all pending cases.

Blitz urges everyone to properly store and use gasoline in accordance with the warnings on the gas can and to always keep gasoline away from children and ignition sources such as flames, pilot lights, stoves, heaters, and electric motors."

In addition to the new product liability lawsuits are two previous suits also pending in District Judge T. John Ward's court.

The pending suits tell of similar incidents.

While attempting to start a fire inside a fire pit on Christmas Eve 2005, Marshall Hart was pouring gasoline onto damp wood when the gasoline container exploded covering him in fire and burning fuel. Inside their house, his wife heard the explosion and looked out the window to see her grandson screaming. Once running outside, she saw that her husband was engulfed in flames. Hart was airlifted to Parkland Hospital for treatment. The Bullard residents filed the product liability suit against Blitz on April 30.

In February in northeast Texas, Jonathon Green was burning brush in a barrel. He attempted to pour gas on to the brush, but the gas container exploded covering Jonathon in burning gasoline and flames. In an effort to save his life, Jonathon was airlifted from Texarkana's St. Michael's Hospital to Little Rock's Arkansas Children's Hospital. However, the burns were too severe. After 29 days of treatment, 20-year-old Jonathon died. Jonathon's mom, Rene Green, filed a wrongful death suit against Blitz, USA, Inc. on Aug 28.

Although the accidents vary greatly in manner and location, each plaintiff claims that when they or their family members attempted to start a fire with gasoline, "gasoline vapors outside the portable gasoline container ignited and the flame followed the vapor trail back inside the container causing it to explode" (flashback).

Within each of the lawsuits, the plaintiffs invoke the doctrine of strict liability declaring the Blitz portable gasoline container was defective and unreasonably dangerous as "designed, manufactured, assembled, marketed, distributed, and sold" by the defendant Blitz U.S.A.

The plaintiffs believe the defendant should have used a "safer alternative design" for the portable gasoline container and this would have "eliminated the risk of such an explosion."

According to court documents, the gasoline containers at issue lacked flame arresters. The plaintiffs describe the flames arrester as an "essential safety device" and state that it prevents flashback of flames using a perforated metal disc or woven wire mesh screen that is placed into the container's opening. The plaintiffs accuse the defendant of a conscious decision to endanger the safety of consumers by refusing to use this device in their portable gasoline containers.

Blitz participated in a task group on the use of flame arresters in gasoline containers conducted by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission on May 31, 2007.

Representing Blitz, Chuck Craig described the potential problems with the use of flame arresters. He said if not properly designed, the device could reduce the fill rate and result in fuel spills and gasoline impurities may eventually clog the flame arrester making the gasoline container useless.

According to records from the meeting, Craig told the commission that in occupational settings flame arresters have been used for many years, those containers are made of metal, thus grounding the flame arrester to the metal body of the container. Consumer gasoline containers are plastic and present the possibility of static charge building as the gasoline passes through the arrester and into the container, potentially creating a spark.

Also in the meeting's log, Craig describes concern that the inclusion of a flame arrester could "create a false sense of security and may encourage unsafe behaviors with gasoline." The working task group concluded with the decision to solicit proposals for independent and unbiased testing to better define the problem.

Within the complaints, the plaintiffs state the defendant was negligent through failure to request the task group to "consider a standard" to include flame arresters or explosion suppression material. The allegations also state Blitz did not provide adequate warnings of the potential danger of flashback with using or misusing the gasoline container and failure to provide post-sale warnings or remedial measures such as a product recall.

In addition, the plaintiffs state the defendant is negligent in failing to design or produce a reasonably safe container, failing to guard against flashback and failing to use explosion proofing material or an explosion suppression system in the container's design.

Further claims include breach of warranties and misrepresentation through the implication that the container was fit for use, safe, and without defect; violation of the Consumer Product Safety Act for failure to report defective and a potentially hazardous product; and failing to report settled or adjudicated lawsuits for death or grievous bodily injury.

Each plaintiff is seeking more than $75,000 in damages for past and future medical expenses, mental anguish, physical pain and suffering, physical impairment and disfigurement, past earnings and loss of future earning capacity.

On behalf of their child, Taylor Delz's parents are also seeking loss of consortium. The Harts are also seeking damages for loss of consortium, fear of future disease or condition, and cost of medical monitoring and prevention. Rachel Green is seeking additional damages for funeral and burial expenses, loss of consortium, loss of advice and counsel.

The plaintiffs argue the defendant acted with conscious indifference resulting in gross negligence; therefore, they are seeking additional exemplary damages.

The Hart case is scheduled for jury selection on May 5, 2008. Blitz responded to Hart's allegations in its answer to the plaintiff's original complaint stating the plaintiff's actions caused his injuries.

"Defendant Blitz would specifically show that the act of pouring gasoline on a known ignition source constitutes express assumption of the risk of burn injury," the answer states. In addition, Blitz argues the Marshall Division is the incorrect forum and is seeking case to be transferred to the Tyler Division.

The Green case is schedule for jury selection on Sept. 2, 2008. Within the response to Green's allegations, Blitz states the incident was caused by the plaintiff's negligent actions.

The defendant admits that Blitz portable plastic consumer gasoline containers do not include commercial OSHA style flame arresters. However, Blitz argues its containers met all ASTM voluntary standards regarding portable plastic consumer gasoline containers or spouts. Blitz also argues it does not have enough information to conclude its containers were used in the incidents at the subject of these lawsuits.

Representing the plaintiffs are Tyler attorneys Matthew Flanery and Darren Grant of the law firm Grant and Flanery, P.C. and Wichita Falls attorneys Valeri Stiers Malone and Matthew Ross Malone of the Malone Legal Group, PLLC.

Judge T. John Ward is presiding over the litigations.

Banks v. Blitz Case No.: 2:07cv00551
Delz v. Blitz Case No.: 2:07cv00550
Green v. Blitz Case No.: 2:07cv00372
Hart v. Blitz Case No.: 2:07cv00169
Hice v. Blitz Case No.: 2:07cv00549

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