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Eric T. Chaffin
Eric T. Chaffin
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Outdoor Firepots Burn Victims, While Company Goes Bankrupt

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It was spring and early summer a year ago when we started hearing reports of people being badly burned by outdoor firepots. Decorative outdoor and patio candle-like burners, firepots were popular for creating atmosphere and adding a little elegance to barbeques, neighborhood get-togethers, and intimate evening outdoor events. Also called "firelights" or "flame pots," these ceramic containers, often with nice-looking walnut or other wood finishes, held a specific type of fuel gel that provided a lasting flame.

People seemed to really enjoy these products. NAPA sold more than 450,000 between 2009 and 2011. But during that time we also started hearing about the accidents. Florida resident Rachael S., who later filed a firepot lawsuit, reported that her NAPA firepot exploded into a fireball when her husband tried to light the gel fuel on the porch of their home. She was left with second- and third-degree burns. About the same time, another Florida resident, Barbara S., was reportedly burned over 30 percent of her body during a similar accident.

On June 14, 2011, the Consumer Product Safety Commission issued a warning to consumers about gel fuels. About the same time, NAPA Home & Garden Inc. asked retailers to stop selling its products nationwide. The company would soon file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, facing dozens of lawsuits by burn victims. Now, NAPA is seeking to resolve all personal injury firepot lawsuits against it in bankruptcy for approximately $15.5 million.

Firepots Are Often Still Burning When Refueled

By the time the dust cleared, manufacturers of firepots and the gel fuels that make them burn were considered liable for at least 64 cases of severe burns. In New York, for example, a fourteen-year old boy ended up covered with blazing, jelly-like citronella fuel after his cousin tried to light a firepot. The fuel he was pouring burst into flames. In the same state, another 24 year old male, suffered second- and third-degree burns after his friend started to refill a pot he thought had run out of fuel.

Upon investigation, researchers discovered that when the firepots get low on fuel, the flame becomes nearly invisible. It appears to be out, yet still burns, creating a dangerous situation when unknowing users poured new fuel on the flame. Since the fuel gels contain 90 percent ethyl alcohol, they're extremely flammable, and can easily cause a flash fire.

The resulting explosions send the fuel flying, and because it's a gel, it sticks to skin and clothing, creating more severe burns than more liquid fuels. Dropping and rolling is not an effective way to put out the fire. Mostly unknown to consumers, baking soda or a dry fire extinguisher is required.

Gel Fuel Recall

In September 2011, the Consumer Products Safety Commission announced a broad recall of Fuel Gel Firepots, including those made by nine manufacturers such as Bird Brain Inc., Lamplight Farms Inc., Bond Manufacturing, Sunjel Company, Fuel Barons Inc., and Real Flame. The recall included about two million products. In July 2011, the Illinois Attorney General called for a recall and lawsuits have been filed by gel fuel burn victims around the country, including cases filed by Chaffin Luhana LLP. Lawsuits claim the warnings are defective and were understated and gave no real indication of the serious risks. Even the president of NAPA, Jerry Cunningham, admitted that the warning label concerning refueling while hot was only a small sticker on part of the pot's packaging, meant to be thrown away. And, the fireplace industry, which has been selling the gel fuel for years, had an alternative design that was safer that the firepot manufacturers failed to implement. Namely, for example, the fuel gel should have been sold in pre-packaged reservoirs with clear warnings for consumers to remove the old reservoir and insert a new one rather than a jug of fuel gel being sold that is poured into a hot reservoir or one that is still burning. Had the manufacturers implemented this simple design, which was superior and safer in many ways, the horrific burns to many victims could have been avoided.