A California federal jury has awarded $59.3 million to the family of a woman who died in a fire caused by a space heater manufactured by Sunbeam Products Inc. The company was found by the jury to be negligent in designing the product and in failing to adequately warn consumers. The jury determined that Sunbeam was aware of the fire risks posed by its defective product when it was manufactured. They also found Kenneth Shinedling and his three daughters to be entitled to compensation for the death of Amy Celeste Shinedling, their wife and mother. While Kenneth Shinedling was found to be 20 percent responsible for the January 2011 blaze, the jury said Sunbeam was mostly to blame. The jury concluded that the company’s Holmes brand heater presented a substantial danger that ordinary consumers wouldn’t recognize. The jury found that a “reasonable manufacturer” would have provided greater notice to customers who bought the space heater.
The family received $13.6 million in wrongful death damages and the remainder of the award was for the emotional distress they have experienced. One daughter — 4 years old at the time of her mother’s death — was awarded another $13.4 million for her past and future suffering. It was acknowledged by the Plaintiffs that the heater did come with a warning stating that combustible materials like furniture, papers and curtains should be kept at least three feet away from the front of the product. The company’s design failed to account for the fact that flammable objects can inadvertently be kicked or knocked within three feet of the heater.
The lawsuit was filed in December 2011, and was removed to federal court the following March of 2012. San Bernadino County and Phelan Pinon Hills Community Services District were originally included as Defendants. The family said the municipal Defendants were responsible for a malfunctioning fire hydrant that failed to provide water when the fire broke out, but later agreed to dismiss those claims after the county and district asserted their immunity.
Sunbeam claimed that the Plaintiffs relied on “rank speculation” to support their manufacturing defect claim and that the family couldn’t show causation for their negligence claim. U.S. District Judge Cormac J. Carney agreed that two reports over a 10-year span involving similar heaters melting and burning were too speculative and dismissed the claim for a manufacturing defect. But the judge said a jury could find for the Plaintiffs on the negligence claim due to Sunbeam’s representation that the heater would turn off automatically if it got too hot. The jury found for the Plaintiffs on two counts of strict liability and two counts of negligence.