Last week the Associated Press reported on a terrible house fire in Riddle, in rural Douglas County, that left four children dead and their parents and a sibling in critical condition at a Portland hospital. According to the news agency the cause of the deadly house fire was a space heater.
AP cites a Facebook post by the local fire chief in which he explains that “a component of the family’s fireplace that circulated heated air back into the house had malfunctioned several days before. The family bought the space heater to stay warm until they could get the fireplace repaired. Four children ages 4 to 13 died in the blaze.”
As a 2014 article in the Vancouver Columbian noted: “the Federal Emergency Management Agency reports that while only two percent of home fires involve portable heaters, they account for a disproportionate 25 percent of fire fatalities.” The paper added a warning for consumers that “it’s easy to miss a recall notice.” Indeed, it is easy to miss precisely because there are so many of them. A search of the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s recall database turns up page after page of heater recalls. Every few months some model or other is pulled from the market. This situation has continued for years.
One is tempted to ask why this particular category of products seems so prone to safety recalls, particularly when the there are serious legal consequences from manufacturing and selling products that are this dangerous. For example, in the Riddle case there is a strong argument to be made for not only a product liability lawsuit but also an Oregon wrongful death action. The injuries to so many children give this case special legal resonance.
According to the Oregon Department of Justice’s Consumer Protection Division (see link below) “Oregon law prevents retailers from offering certain children’s products that have been recalled by the United States Consumer Product Safety Commission or determined by the Oregon Health Authority to contain banned hazardous substances (such as lead, corrosives or combustible chemicals, etc) – emphasis added. Clearly the terms of these regulations would extend to products designed to be used in spaces frequented by children. So while a space heater is not a toy, the reasonable expectation that it would regularly be used near children places a special burden on manufacturers to ensure that these products are safe. Indeed, the basic appearance of most home heaters – with their potentially lethal heating elements only minimally protected from small hands that might reach inside – indicates a product that is fundamentally unsafe.
As a Portland attorney with a special focus on injuries to children I have handled cases involving burns and other injuries resulting from defective, or simply poorly-built, heaters. The fact that a product is in widespread use does not exempt the manufacturer from doing all that it can to make that product safe. Yet as the CPSC website shows, heaters as a particular product category have been a problem for years. If manufacturers are unwilling to do what they should to make home heaters and similar products safe, then it is our job as citizens to use the justice system to hold them accountable.
AP (via MSN): Official: Space heater led to fatal Oregon fire
The Columbian: Energy Adviser: Check recalls, be safe with space heaters
Oregon Department of Justice – Consumer Protection Division: Child Safety