Texas SC finds lighter defect not to blame for girl's burns

Steve Korris Jun. 21, 2011, 3:55am

AUSTIN – Bic Pen's J-26 lighter didn't cause a 6-year-old girl's clothing to catch fire, the Supreme Court of Texas ruled on June 17.

The Justices erased a $3 million verdict that Matagorda County jurors returned for Janace Carter, mother of Brittany Carter.

"We conclude that no evidence supports the finding that a manufacturing defect caused Brittany's injuries," Justice Phil Johnson wrote.

"The facts of this case are unfortunate," he wrote. "Nevertheless, we must apply established legal principles in reviewing the parties' positions."

Brittany's 5-year-old brother, Jonas, set her on fire accidentally.

Their mother sued Bic in 1998, alleging defects in design and manufacturing.

She claimed two components, the shield force and the fork force, deviated from specifications Bic furnished to the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

She claimed the defects lessened the force necessary to operate the lighter.

Jurors agreed, awarding $3 million in actual damages and $2 million in exemplary damages.

District Judge Craig Estinbaum entered judgment on the verdict.

On appeal, 13th District judges affirmed the actual damages but rejected the exemplary damages, finding Carter didn't prove malice.

In 2008, the Supreme Court found federal law preempted a claim of defective design.

The court directed the 13th District to review the judgment on defective manufacturing, and the 13th District affirmed the judgment.

Justice Dori Garza wrote, "We conclude that Carter produced more than a scintilla of evidence to support a finding that the Subject Lighter deviated from its specifications or planned output, that such deviation rendered the lighter unreasonably dangerous, and that the defect was a producing cause of Brittany's injuries."

Bic returned to the Supreme Court and won the appeal without dissent.

Johnson wrote, "We conclude that Carter presented legally sufficient evidence that the subject lighter did not meet manufacturing specifications."

"Bic claims that even if the subject lighter deviated from specifications, Carter failed to prove that the deviation was a producing cause of Brittany's injuries," he wrote. "We agree."

"A producing cause must be a cause in fact; that is, it must be a substantial factor in bringing about the injury, and a cause without which the injury would not have happened."

Johnson wrote that the court of appeals noted that the jury may determine causation based on circumstantial evidence.

"Although we do not disagree generally with that statement, we disagree with how the court of appeals applied it in this case."

Evidence that components deviated from specifications, an accident occurred and the deficient parts were involved is insufficient to support a finding of causation, he wrote.

"Rather, there must have been some evidence that the fire that burned Brittany started because of the specific manufacturing defects and that absent those defects Brittany's injuries would not have occurred,," he wrote.

Even a lighter that meets child resistant specifications is not intended to be completely inoperable by children, Johnson wrote.

"The specifications contemplate that some children less than 5 years old will be able to operate a lighter certified as child resistant," he wrote.

Reagan Simpson, Kyle Dreyer, Darrell Barger, Bert Huebner and Amy Eikel represented Bic.

Lisa Powell, Daniel Worthington, Daniel Gurwitz and Daniel Shindler represented Carter.

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