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Eric T. Chaffin
Eric T. Chaffin
Attorney • (888) 480-1123

CPSC Should Ban Use of Liquid Fuel Gel in Backyard Firepots

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Last summer, 12 different manufacturers of backyard firepots that use liquid fuel gel recalled the products, recalling more than 2 million bottles of gel fuel. The recall followed dozens of reported horrific second- and third-degree burn injuries and multiple deaths from them. A year later, consumers continue to be burned by these products despite the recalls. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (“CPSC”) has taken steps to make rules regarding these products but despite a notice last December, has not acted. The CPSC should act to officially ban these products and foster consumer awareness so additional consumers are not injured. The National Association of State Fire Marshals has been calling on the CPSC to ban these products since February 2012.

Firepots are also referred to as personal fireplaces, personal fire pits, fire lights, firetowers, or fireplaces. According to the CPSC, the following characteristics are common among these products, they: (1) are portable; (2) are open on at least one side; (3) have an open cup, usually made of stainless steel, to hold gel fuel; and (4) are used with alcohol-based gel fuel. The prevalent manufacturers of the firepots included Napa and Birdbrain and a popular manufacturer of the gel fuel is Fuel Barons. The gel fuel used in the firepots is primarily alcohol based (containing approximately 80 percent alcohol). The CPSC has reported that the flashpoints for samples of gel fuel tested ranged from less than or equal to 74 degrees Fahrenheit to the lowest measuring 32 degrees Fahrenheit. Also, the viscosity of the gel fuel ranged from 5,000 to 25,000 CentiPoise (“cP”). These viscosities are similar to molasses, honey or chocolate syrup according to the CPSC. The CPSC has also identified various scenarios where the firepots and fuel gel can present potential horrific risk of injury, including: during refueling of the firepot; explosion while lighting the firepot; fuel container explosion; burn cup ejection; explosion during use; tipping over of the firepot; firepot breakage; and explosion while extinguishing the flame. The gel fuel and firepots are particularly dangerous because when consumers encounter them, they appear to be similar to other innocuous products the consumer has seen before, such as candles, but the gel fuel firepots are far more dangerous. With firepots, there is no wick. Rather, the gel itself burns. If the gel spills, sprays or explodes because of its highly combustible alcohol base, it sticks to its victim like napalm, causing horrific fires and burns. The gel also cannot easily be extinguished. The typical “stop, drop and roll” taught for putting out fires on your body can simply cause the gel fuel to spread to other parts of the body, causing more injuries. The injuries reported by the CPSC and from what I have seen from my clients who have been injured range from horrific and deep second- and third-degree burns. And, multiple people are reported to have died from firepot fuel gel burns. Victims typically spend days in the hospital for treatment and have long-term physical scarring that leaves them both physically and mentally scarred for life.

In December 2011, the CPSC issued a proposed Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (16 CR Part Chapter II, Vol. 80832, Fed. Reg. 76, No. 248, Tues., Dec. 27, 2011, Proposed Rules) related to firepots and gel fuel. Written comments in response to the notice were due by February 27, 2012—nearly five months ago—during the winter months when consumers were less likely to be using their firepots and fuel gel. Around the same time, the National Association of Fire Marshals called for the CPSC to ban the gel fuel firepots all together, and one of the potential remedies that the CPSC identified was an outright ban of the products. Similarly, almost a year ago, the Illinois Attorney General called for a ban, and Suffolk County in Long Island, New York implemented a ban of the products last year. Still, however, despite this overwhelming outcry by consumer advocates and experts in the field of fire safety, as well as continued reports of injuries from gel fuel firepots, including a firepot explosion last week in San Diego, the CPSC has failed to act to ban these products. The CPSC should do so promptly. Now is a particularly appropriate time – we are already into the height of the summer backyard season, consumers are pulling out their lawn equipment, bug repellants and other backyard items including the firepots and recalled gel fuel, not knowing the gel fuel has been recalled. These people and their loved ones are at risk of horrific injuries. The products offer no warning except on the shipping boxes, which are typically discarded, and the gel fuel itself carries too inconspicuous information to be sufficient to warn people of the dangers of the products. The CPSC should ban the firepots that use liquid gel fuel immediately and put out press information promptly. They should also encourage national retail chains that formerly carried these products to put information in flyers and on displays at their stores warning consumers of the recall and ban.

Meanwhile, the small businesses who manufactured these firepots are busy trying to shed their liabilities rather than effectively warn consumers. Napa and Fuel Barons, two of the biggest culprits in this mess, have filed for bankruptcy. For the Napa bankruptcy, there were personal injury claims filed by over 100 consumers injured from the Nap firepots, including two death cases. The total relief available to these victims is only $15,000,000. A claims administration process was already set up to distribute these funds in the Napa bankruptcy and a nationally prominent mediator was appointed to handle allocations. Unfortunately, there simply is not enough money to compensate the victims, and they are receiving only a small fraction of the amount they should receive. Separately, the date for submitting claims in the Fuel Barron’s bankruptcy is coming up later this month. Consumers who submit claims in that bankruptcy proceeding will share in $7 million available for distribution to victims and it is expected that similar victims to those who filed in the Napa bankruptcy will file Fuel Barons claims. Consumers who suffer personal injuries from a Fuel Barron’s product should contact a lawyer promptly to file a claim. My firm is handling claims against both of these defendants and others in bankruptcy court and we are also pursuing cases in trial courts across the country against other manufacturers, including BirdBrain. For more information about the cases or to contact us on behalf of yourself or one of your clients, visit one of our websites, www.ChaffinLuhana.com or www.ExplodingFirepot.com

Other manufacturers continue to operate, including BirdBrain. BirdBrain is being sued in lawsuits around the country, including by my firm, on behalf of victims. BirdBrain has converted its gel fuel firepot product into a solid fuel gel, which is a safer alternative that replaces the prior defective gel fuel for BirdBrain firepots. We represent a number of BirdBrain victims, including a small boy whose face was horrifically burned last year before BirdBrain recalled its gel fuel firepot last September. Unfortunately, for our clients it is too late. If the CPSC acts swiftly to ban these dangerous products, however, perhaps these horrific injuries can be avoided for other consumers.