PCVA Attorney Jason P. Amala has settled a lawsuit against a Canadian gel fuel manufacturer and others for a total of $5.375 million. Trial in the lawsuit was set to begin today in Marion County Circuit Court in Salem, Oregon.
PCVA’s client, Lillis Larson, was volunteering at her church’s food booth at the Salem Art Fair and Festival in July 2009 when she was burned by a bottle of Ecoflame Warming Gel, a gel fuel product that the church was using to keep food warm. As another volunteer tried to re-fill an Ecoflame can, the Ecoflame bottle of gel that she was using for the refill caught fire and exploded. Witnesses described an explosion that resulted in flaming gel shooting out of the bottle, covering Ms. Larson across her torso and neck. The flames could not be put out with water so volunteers had to use fire extinguishers.
Ms. Larson was life-flighted to a hospital in Portland and spent months recovering in a hospital burn unit and intensive home care. She suffered second and third degree burns on approximately one-third of her body and underwent multiple skin graft surgeries.
The Ecoflame product, which was labeled as “non-explosive,” was marketed as a re-fillable, environmentally friendly alternative to the familiar Sterno brand chafing cans that are used by restaurants and caterers to keep food warm. Members of Ms. Larson’s church testified they switched to Ecoflame from Sterno because of those representations.
Jason represented Ms. Larson with his father, Oregon attorney Carl R. Amala of Harris Wyatt & Amala, LLC. According to Jason and Carl, Ecoflame knew its product was dangerous but put profits over consumer safety: “We discovered evidence that Ecoflame not only believed its product was explosive if exposed to flame, but the company chose not to use a safety cap that would have prevented this type of accident because it knew people would be less likely to buy it. It then chose to market the unsafe product as ‘non-explosive.’ We asserted that this was a classic case of a company intentionally putting profits over consumer safety.”
The $5.375 million settlement is believed to be the largest yet arising from use of a gel fuel product. Last year, nine manufacturers voluntarily recalled some of their gel fuel products at the request of the Consumer Product Safety Commission, which had received dozens of complaints from injured consumers. The CPSC is currently drafting new regulations to address gel fuel products, which began gaining popularity in 2008 until news of the voluntary recall.
A number of lawsuits were filed against gel fuel manufacturers, but the largest prior settlement is believed to have been $225,000. In contrast, Ecoflame’s insurers will fund $2 million of the settlement with Ms. Larson. The remaining $3.75 million was paid by insurers for the church.
Ms. Larson, a retired teacher of human development, hopes news of the settlement will prevent other people from being injured. “People need to know that these products are still out there and they are very dangerous, both for the people using them and for innocent bystanders.”