A recent jury verdict in Minnesota once again brings to light the dangers associated with ethanol fireplaces and similar devices. In McElrath v. Gilt Groupe, Inc, EcoSmart, Inc., and Blue Ocean Manufacturing Group, LLC, a federal court jury in Minnesota heard evidence involving defects associated with a tabletop fireplace. In that case, Carla and Paul McElrath suffered serious burns while trying to add ethanol to a 12-ounce container used with a tabletop fireplace.

The involved product, an Eco-Flame Granite Table Top Fireplace, was purchased new by the couple. It was manufactured by Blue Ocean Manufacturing Group, LLC. The fuel was manufactured and packaged by EcoSmart, Inc. and the product was sold and marketed by an online retailer, Gilt Groupe, Inc. Both Gilt Groupe and EcoSmart settled with the Plaintiffs before trial. The verdict was against Blue Ocean, which was not represented at trial.

Ms. McElraths had attempted to add fuel to the small, glass-covered fireplace while a flame was unknowingly still lit. Because of the nature of the product, it is difficult to determine whether the flame has completely burned out. The product is designed in such a manner that fuel must be added from the top. As fuel was being added, in this case a flashback occurred, which resulted in serious burns.

Ethanol fireplaces were developed from concepts similar to the old kerosene lanterns. The products began to grown in popularity about 10 years ago. The products come in various shapes and sizes, from the tabletop models to models that are stationary or hang on walls. They are also available for indoor and outdoor use.

The fireplaces are touted as being more environmentally friendly than traditional fireplaces or other fuel-burning devices. The fuel is made from natural ingredients, such as corn, potatoes, milk and rice. The manufacturers of these products contend that the amount of carbon dioxide that is emitted after using the fireplaces for three hours is roughly equivalent to what would be created by two burning candles. They are also touted as being odorless.

However, there are other firepots and tabletop fireplaces that are not ethanol-fuel based. Other products use fuels that are alcohol-based or other “gel fuels.” Many of these products have been associated with serious injuries. Government-initiated investigations have greatly curtailed the use of these products. For example, in 2012, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) directed that all pourable gel fuels be recalled, after as many as 86 people were injured from using these products. In 2013, the CPSC also issued a recall on Brinkmann Outdoor Tabletop Propane Heaters, which created risks of carbon monoxide poisoning. Between 2005 and 2013, there were more than 10 recalls of similar products.

Another lawsuit has also recently been filed on behalf of a couple in New Jersey. In that case, the product concerned is a citronella oil-filled patio table lamp. The Plaintiff, Mari Linn Lancovara, reported that she blew out the lamp on her patio and as she turned the lamp exploded, causing serious burns. This oil lamp was sold by Big Lots and was manufactured in India. The Consumer Product Safety Commission ordered Big Lots to stop selling the product because of the numerous reports of burns associated with it.

As these cases demonstrated, these fuel-burning products, including the ethanol-fuel products, can be hazardous. One company, Nu-Flame (bluworld HOMelements) instituted a recall in 2012 on certain of its Vivido wall mounted Bio-Fireplaces. The recall necessitated the addition of vent holes, which had to be done by an approved repair person. Its product includes a warning that cautions the user against refilling the burner or the cup while the flame is still on or the cup is warm.

The take-home message is that all of these products must be purchased and used with extreme care. We anticipate more issues with these types of products in the future because of the nature of the products and the risks of burns or fires. If you need more information on this subject, contact Ben Locklar, a lawyer in our firm’s Personal Injury/Products Liability Section, at 800-898-2034 or by email at Ben.Locklar@beasleyallen.com.

Source: Verdict Search: Products Liability, Vol. 13-1, July 2015

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