Eight suits in Fulton County State Court are part of a wave of litigation related to complaints that gel-fueled decorative firepots exploded when users poured more fuel into the devices, drenching themselves or bystanders with flaming jelly.
The Atlanta suits were filed by attorneys with Mount Pleasant, S.C.’s Motley Rice, which have also sued three of the makers of firepots in South Carolina.
Motley Rice partner Kevin Dean said that he is aware of more than 100 cases of injuries related to the firepots and fuel, one involving a fatality in Florida. The Georgia suits, he said, expand the scope of liability to other entities throughout the chain of the products’ distribution.
The defendants sued by plaintiffs claiming to have been burned by the gel include Ashland Inc.; Berlin Packaging L.L.C.; Existential Ingredients Inc.; Plastic Bottle Corp.; Ivystone Group L.L.C. aka Homestyle; Ivystone Group Inc., Bed Bath & Beyond Inc.; Apollo Industries Inc. and Losorea Packaging Inc.
Dean said that several of the defendants are either based in Georgia or have representatives here, and that a number of witnesses are also in-state.
“The plaintiffs allege that not only are the firepots defective, but more importantly that the fuel gel itself is unsafe and not properly tested, as well as the components used to manufacture and bottle it,” said Dean.
“So what you have are allegations that the bottlers, the chemical companies that supplied the ingredients, the companies that manufactured the bottles and caps, the fuel suppliers, the marketers — there was no collaboration or testing for safety concerns ever considered when they launched these products.”
One of the Fulton suits describes the experience of a North Carolina man, Matthew Wykoff, who was sitting with some friends when one of them attempted to refill a Napa Firepot with the gel when “the fuel ‘exploded’ from the bottle and projected a torch-like directional flame.”
Wykoff was “engulfed” in flames, said the complaint, and attempted to employ the “stop, drop and roll” fire-prevention technique, to no immediate avail.
“The gel fuel that had consumed Mr. Wykoff’s body was difficult to extinguish because of the gel-fuel’s gel-like consistency,” it said. The fuel “continued to flame and burn until the gel fuel completely consumed itself.”
Wykoff suffered burns to 16 percent of his body, including “deep second-degree burns to his lower extremities and left hand,” it said.
The gel fuel is composed largely of ethyl alcohol which, according to the suit, “burns clean with no visible smoke or ash. As a result, gel fuel fires are difficult to see compared to similar sized fires of other fuels.”
In addition, it said, the firepots may retain a small flame or smoldering residue in the base, unseen by the user.
“This can produce the illusion that the firepot has been extinguished for some time, prompting users to refill it,” it said. “However, the gel fuel is very easy to ignite, and will do so from a very small ignition source, such as that found in the base of a recently used firepot.”
The Daily Report sought a response from attorneys representing the defendant companies. Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith partner R. Scott Masterson, whose firm represents Losorea, said he could not comment on the pending litigation; the others did not respond by press time.
But in the defense filings entered so far, the companies have denied any responsibility for the design and manufacture of the firepots or fuel, and assert that the plaintiffs themselves bear some or all of the liability for their injuries.
Firepots and fuel distributed by Duluth-based Napa Home & Garden and sold in outlets such as Home Depot, Restoration Hardware and Bed Bath & Beyond, were the subject of a June 2011 recall of about 460,000 bottles and units.
“The pourable gel fuel can ignite unexpectedly and splatter onto people and objects nearby when it is poured into a firepot that is still burning,” said an order of the Consumer Product Safety Commission. “This hazard can occur if the consumer does not see the flame or is not aware that the firepot is still ignited. Fuel gel that splatters and ignites can pose fire and burn risks to consumers.”
Napa shortly filed for bankruptcy protection, as did another company that manufactured the fuel gel, Fire Barons Inc. The federal bankruptcy court for Georgia’s Northern District has approved a $15 million settlement with Napa’s insurer to set up a trust fund to pay filed and expected claims; the court has yet to approve a $7 million settlementwith Fire Barons’ insurer.
The eight Fulton cases, naming Ashland and others as defendants, are Nos. 12EV105233; 12EV015234; 12EV015536; 12EV015567; 12EV01758; 12EV015759; 12EV015769 and 12EV015771.