Hope Chest That Caused Death of 2 Franklin, Mass. Children: A Tragic, But Classic Case of Product Liability

By now, most people have heard about the tragic suffocation deaths in a hope chest of two young siblings in Franklin, MA. It really is heartbreaking: A brother and sister, Lexi Munroe, 8, and Sean Munroe, 7, died after climbing into a hope chest Sunday night and without knowing it, locked it shut with no way out. It seems they were playing what almost all children that age do: Hide and seek. Autopsy results have yet to be officially released, but all signs point to accidental asphyxiation as the cause of death. The Norfolk County District Attorney’s Office is reportedly confident that no criminal issues are presented here.

The hope chest involved was manufactured by Lane Furniture, a popular Virginia furniture maker, in 1939. On a legal or evidentiary level, this is important because both Lane and the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission have confirmed that Lane recalled hope chests manufactured from 1912 through 1986 specifically due to the threat that small children could become trapped inside the chest and suffocate. Millions of these hope chests manufactured in these years were recalled. The lids of these chests were locked from the outside, upon closing. There were no locks or latches on the inside of the chest, to allow it to be opened from the inside, once closed. An exterior button or latch needed to be pressed or manipulated to open the lid. Federal product safety officials had, for years following the 1996 recall of the chest, warned that several of these dangerous products might still be somewhere in circulation. However, in 2001 Lane was issued a $900,000 fine by the government for failing to report the entrapment risk in a timely manner.

Lane Furniture had recalled 12 million “Lane” and “Virginia Maid” cedar chests, advising the chests needed to have the locks on them replaced due to reports of children becoming trapped inside. Heritage Home Group acquired Lane’s assets in November 2013. Heritage issued a statement that it “extends its deepest condolences to the family that has suffered this unthinkable tragedy. We wish them comfort at this most difficult time.” The company also stepped up its efforts to notify the public of this risk, and is offering free lock replacement kits for the affected chests.

This awful tragedy is made worse by the fact that the children’s family had apparently bought the chest secondhand some 15 years ago. As a result, it seems they never learned about the manufacturer’s recall of the chest due to the very threat that resulted here.

My firm is a Boston dangerous products law firm. We specialize in representing clients that have been injured, within Massachusetts product liability cases. Because of this, we’re in a unique professional position to analyze the question: While no criminal issue appear present, on a civil level, is anyone legally liable here for the tragic deaths of these two children? Is Lane Furniture? Is Heritage Home Group? Are the people who sold the chest to the children’s family some 15 years ago? Could any retail stores be liable? What is the legal standard to which any potential defendant might be held, if a law suit were filed?

These are difficult and complex legal questions, and they are difficult to answer in a brief blog post here. However, I can assure you that multiple potential civil defendants are presented in this situation. These potential defendants include:

• Almost certainly Heritage Home Group • Possibly any still-existing assets or owners of Lane Furniture.
• Any suppliers that provided parts in the manufacture or assembly of the chest – especially any lock or hasp manufacturer(s)
• Any outside design firm(s) that assisted in the design of the chest.
• Any retail outlet(s) or retailing firms that can be traced as having sold this particular chest may be defendants.
• Any marketing firms that worked or were retained in the promotion of this product.
• Any distributors or shipping companies that were hired in the distribution of this product.
• Any marketing and/or advertising firms that were retained or assisted in the marketing or promotion of this product may also be potential defendants.

As to the legal standard that would be applied to determine liability in any potential suit, that is a long legal answer, but at its most basic level, it boils down to a test of foreseeability: Was it reasonably foreseeable to someone in the defendant(s) position, that an accident of this type might occur as the result of the design and manufacture of these chests? Again, that is a very short summary, but for now, it will have to do. A very wide variety of evidence and testimony would be introduced in a case like this – and the fact that a recall was ordered for this product is extremely powerful and favorable to any potential plaintiffs’ suit. But for now, that is not what is important to this family. What is important is that they receive the emotional support of all who are close to them. All that we or anyone can say is that we extend our sincere condolences to the family of these two young siblings.

Lastly, we’ve been involved in so many Massachusetts defective product cases where victims have been badly injured, we can only ask: When will corporate America ever put customer safety first? Common sense by the manufacturer, and maybe a few dollars on a better design for this chest, would have prevented this problem completely. It’s terribly sad.