Massachusetts Pool Slide Death $20 Million Verdict Upheld

Summer – it’s almost here. That’s when everyone enjoys summer barbecues, lemonade, and pool parties galore in the backyard.

I’ve written in this blog previously that swimming pools bring with them inherent risks. The risks of injury are very high. Depending on the type of swimming pool injury involved, an area of law known as “premises liability” or “product liability” will usually be involved. Whether the pool is an in-ground/built-in, or an above-ground portable pool, as a Boston/Dedham Massachusetts injury lawyer, I can assure you they can be very dangerous – if not fatal. Whatever type of pool is involved, numerous safety and liability prevention measures should be taken by all property owners who have a swimming pool on their premises.

Just last week, a Massachusetts judge upheld a $20 Million verdict that was returned by an Essex County Superior Court jury last fall in a swimming pool product liability case. The jury awarded the sum to the family of a Colorado woman who died after a Toys ‘R Us inflatable pool slide partially collapsed, as she attended a pool party in Andover.

The background on that suit: Robin Aleo was 29 years old, married, and the mother of an 18-month-old daughter. In 2006, at a pool party at the home of relatives in Andover, Mrs. Aleo climbed to the top of the six-foot-high “Banzai Falls” inflatable slide that the owners of the pool had purchased, instead of installing a permament, “hard” slide. Mrs. Aleo slid down the slide head-first. At the bottom, the slide bent, or collpased, under her weight and Mrs. Aleo hit her head on the edge of the pool, breaking her neck. She was left unable to breathe and paralyzed. She died the next day.

The owners of the pool were Mr. Aleo’s aunt and uncle, Sarah and William Letsky, of Andover. The Letskys had purchased the slide a month prior from Toys ‘R Us, through the website. Mrs. Aleo was, at the very least, the second person to be injured by the Banzai Falls slide. According to court documents, a man in Missouri was left a quadriplegic when the same thing happened to him, on a Banzai Falls slide purchase at Walmart.

Jurors in Mrs. Aleo’s Massachusetts product liability case learned an important fact: that the company that Toys ‘R Us uses in China to safety-test its products for export, Bureau Veritas, was never asked to test the pool slide for compliance with federal safety regulations at the Consumer Product Safety Commission. While the slide had a small-print warning that it should not be used head-first, federal safety standards did require that the slide be tested for such a typical use. Furthermore, a plaintiff’s expert witness concluded that the Banzai Falls slide completely deforms under almost any weight at all, making it virtually unable to support any kind of load.

As a Boston, Massachusetts product liability attorney, I find it almost incomprehensible that any company would think that an inflatable slide woudl not bend or collapse under the weight of even a child, never mind an adult. It seems not enough has been learned since the days when the unbelievably foolish and dangerous “Slip ‘N Slide” was manufactured (sometimes known by its more fitting name, the “How To Break Your Neck In A Few Easy Steps” toy.)

Toys ‘R Us attorneys’ argued that the regulations did not apply to the Banzai Falls slide, because it was inflatable. How creative. The jury’s verdict last fall included $2.5 Million in anticipated lost income for Mrs. Aleo’s advertising/marketing career and other actual damages; $100,000 for pain and suffering before her death; and $18 Million in punitive damages. Two other defendants who were named in the initial suit along with Toys ‘R Us,, and also manufacturer SLB Toys USA, both settled with Mr. Aleo for undisclosed amounts of money.

As a Norfolk County injury attorney, I can tell you this for sure: Now that a Massachusetts judge has upheld the $20 Million jury award, and denied Toys ‘R Us’s motion for a new trial and verdict reduction, the pressure on the defendants to settle is increased exponentially. Toys ‘R Us can appeal this verdict to the Massachusetts Appeals Court, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court and beyond that, but thankfully, there is a legal mechanism that prevents defendants who have been found liable in such cases, from denying justice to the plaintiffs by dragging the case on, forever. Many defendants who have been ruled against, and ordered to pay damages, would do exactly that, if they could. That would be their way of preventing paying any damages. However, there is a statute that provides for “post-judgment interest” to accrue on a jury’s verdict award, if a defendant chooses to appeal. This ensures that a defendant is not denied the right of appeal, but it also provides a disincentive to continue appeals when they have little to no legal basis. All this means that the more Toys ‘R Us appeals these court rulings, the more the clock ticks, and the more money they will eventually owe to the plaintiffs.

The Essex County Clerk of Courts said that his office is still calculating the interest on this judgment, and that it will be probably the largest ever awarded by an Essex County jury.