Massachusetts SJC Hears Appeal Of Dangerous Products Case

A few days ago, I posted on the subject of a Massachusetts dangerous products lawsuit involving an inflatable swimming pool slide and Toys R Us, where almost $21 million was awarded in 2006 by a Massachusetts jury to the family of a woman killed in an accident due to this defective product.

Very recently, Toys R Us appeared before the Massachusetts Supreme Court to argue that the jury’s award be overturned. Why? Because of a legal technicality, of course.

Attorneys for Ms. Aleo’s husband argued that pool slides have been governed by a U.S. Product Safety Commission standard since 1976, which they contend, applies to all types of pool slides, regardless of what material they consist of. Toys R Us contends that the standard was meant to apply to rigid (permanently installed, fixed) slides only, and not the inflatable, flexible slides that have increased in popularity in recent years. Mr. Aleo’s aunt and uncle bought the slide from Toys R Us through Amazon.com. It should come as little surprise to anyone that Toys R Us had imported the pool slides from China, where they were originally manufactured. Aleo’s attorneys asserted that the inflatable slide was never tested for safety, and that the product carried no required certification that it had been tested for safety.

So, the primary legal issue here? Whether or not 1976 Consumer Product Safety Commission regulation relied on by Aleo’s family applies to inflatable pool slides, or only to rigid, permanently installed pool slides. Toys R Us argues that because inflatable slides did not exist when the regulation was enacted in 1976, that it does not apply to inflatable slides. The company claims that the regulation set out performance standards that were designed for rigid slides, and that those standards could not be met by an inflatable slide made of malleable fabric. Aleo’s attorneys argued at trial, and still argue now, that the regulation in question applies to all swimming pool slides “regardless of the materials of manufacture or structural characteristics.”

Toys R Us has also advanced two other legal issues on appeal here: 1) Whether, as Toys R Us claims, the trial judge allowed Aleo’s attorneys to “inflame” the jury by alleging that Toys R Us imported an “illegal” product because the pool slide did not meet required safety regulations. 2) Whether the trial judge correctly refused to allow rebuttal testimony of some witnesses who said that Mrs. Aleo had “jumped” or “dived” off the slide head-first. Witnesses for Mrs. Aleo’s husband testified during the 2006 trial that Mrs. Aleo had slid down the slide.

A lot is at stake here: The 2011 Salem Superior Court jury had awarded Mrs. Aleo’s estate $20.6 million, including $2.5 million in anticipated lost income from Mrs. Aleo’s career as an advertising and marketing executive, $100,000 for pain and suffering that she endured before her death, and $18 million in punitive damages. Toys R Us also claims that the $18 million punitive damages award was “grossly excessive.” Other than that, the company has offered no comment. Interestingly, after the trial’s jury verdict, the CPSC announced in May 2012 that both Toys R Us and Wal-Mart stores had issued a recall for the pool slides, citing Mrs. Aleo’s death as well as injuries suffered by two other victims, including a 24-year-old man from Springfield, Mo. That man was rendered a quadriplegic in a pool accident similar to the one Mrs. Aleo died from, and a woman from Allentown, Pa., who fractured her neck in a similar accident to the Aleo tragedy.

The Aleo verdict has, predictably, drawn in the larger toy industry association to this important case. The Toy Industry Association Inc., a trade group consisting of nearly 600 manufacturers and retailers that account for about 85 percent of annual sales in the U.S. domestic toy market, jumped into the fray, filing a friend-of-the-court brief supporting Toys R Us in its appeal.

This is one why Massachusetts defective product injury cases can become so complex, and why Massachusetts dangerous products lawsuits require a highly-experienced law firm: The damages tend to be very high, and these corporate defendants fight these cases tooth-and-nail. As a Boston, Massachusetts defective products injury lawyer, I’ve seen these cases far too many times. To me, they exemplify just how callous corporate America can be when it comes to consumer safety. And many products are still this unsafe, this bad, despite laws against unsafe products. Stop for a minute, and imagine how unsafe a huge amount of products would be, if these cases are blocked from the court system altogether.

That’s what “tort reform” is all about. Still confused? Get your hands on the HBO documentary “Hot Coffee.” Watch it. Learn. Speak up.

Or your dangerous products case may be the next one shut out of the courtroom.

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