June 19, 2011

Burn cases turn up the heat on fireplace makers

Lila Stephens wears full casts on both arms in October 2010, three weeks after she touched the glass in front of a gas fireplace at a Wisconsin Dells resort and suffered third-degree burns. She was 11 months old at the time. Courtesy of Fred Stephens.

In September, a family’s vacation in Wisconsin Dells turned tragic when an infant touched the glass front of a fireplace and suffered third-degree burns at a resort hotel.

Her father, Fred Stephens, says he had no idea the glass could get dangerously hot.

Lila Stephens, then 11 months old, was burned on the unprotected glass of the fireplace in the family’s room at the Kalahari Resort, her father says. Lila had skin grafted from her abdomen to both hands, and is making a good recovery.

Stephens, a probation officer from Little Canada, Minn., says he was “just devastated” by the accident, “and, I think, like any parent, horribly guilty that I allowed it to happen.”

About this story

This investigation was produced by Encino, Calif.-based FairWarning, a nonprofit investigative center that covers health, safety and corporate conduct. FairWarning, like WisconsinWatch.org, is part of the nonprofit Investigative News Network.

FairWarning’s first story in this series ran Jan. 11: “Toddlers Suffer Severe Burns from Broiling Fireplace Glass, as Businesses Write Their Own Safety Rules.”

Across the country, some parents of burned children, including Stephens, are going to court seeking compensation and improvements to gas fireplaces to prevent burns.

Manufacturers are being buffeted by lawsuits and the threat of federal regulation amid heightened concerns about the risk of burns from the glass fronts of the appliances, which can get hot enough to melt skin.

The new pressure stems from cases of children suffering third-degree burns from touching or stumbling into the glass panes. They are allowed by a voluntary industry standard to reach temperatures of up to 500 degrees.

As FairWarning reported in January, more than 2,000 children ages five and under suffered burn injuries from fireplace glass from 1999 to 2009, according to a federal estimate.

Among recent developments:

– The Consumer Product Safety Commission, which until now has allowed the industry to police itself, in June took an initial step that could lead to government rules. Commissioners voted 5-0 to request public comments on two petitions — one proposing mandatory screens or other safeguards to prevent contact with fireplace glass, and the other to require use of a warning device to alert parents when the glass is dangerously hot.

– A federal judge in Oakland, Calif., approved a class action settlement requiring Lennox International, a top fireplace maker, to offer to send protective screens to more than 500,000 owners of its Lennox and Superior brand gas fireplaces. The company, which did not admit liability, also agreed to pay $4.93 million in fees and expenses to three law firms that filed the case.

The industry “is very serious about making sure that this issue becomes a non-issue” by finding a way to prevent burns, says Allan Cagnoli, director of government affairs for the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association, an industry trade group.

Toddler burned at Dells resort

Sometimes wracked by guilt and facing medical bills in the six figures, parents of burned children say they had no idea the glass could get dangerously hot.

Stephens says that having a “giant piece of glass at floor level (that) is allowed to get as hot as your oven on broil … is very upsetting.”

In January, the family filed a lawsuit in Dane County Circuit Court in Madison naming Kalahari and the companies that produced and installed the fireplace. All have denied responsibility.

The manufacturer was Hearth & Home Technologies, an industry leader and the only major company that boasts of providing a permanently attached mesh safety screen with all of its gas fireplaces. But for reasons that are unclear, there was no screen on the fireplace that burned Lila, Stephens says. A spokeswoman for Hearth & Home says she cannot discuss a pending case.

While the Lennox settlement resolves the biggest case against the industry, another class action is just getting started. Filed in May by the same lawyers who brought the Lennox suit, it names three companies involved in the manufacture and distribution of Valor brand gas fireplaces: BDR Thermea of the Netherlands; British subsidiary Baxi Group; and Miles Industries Ltd. of North Vancouver, British Columbia.

The suit filed in federal court in Oakland contends that owners of Valor fireplaces have suffered economic loss because they will need to install safeguards on the fireplaces to operate them safely.

The fireplaces “are designed so that their glass front, installed in homes at a height accessible even to small children and infants, can … reach temperatures well in excess of that necessary to cause third-degree burns even from momentary contact with the super-heated glass,” the lawsuit states.

The suit identifies Sean Whelan of San Francisco as class representative. His daughter suffered severe burns from a Valor gas fireplace, according to a separate personal injury claim filed last month.

Whelan, a 46-year-old real estate developer, says he purchased 14 of the Valor fireplaces to install in new housing units, including one at his own home. Last July, he says, his daughter Signe, then 11 months old, sustained third-degree burns to both hands after touching the unprotected glass.

The flame was so low that it was not noticeable, Whelan says, yet Signe “needed the help of my wife to remove her from the glass as her hands had melted onto the glass.”

Since then, Signe has had two surgeries, including skin grafts, and will probably need a third operation, Whelan says. Now 19 months old, she still wears compression gloves as part of her treatment. Changing the gloves every few days “is a pretty traumatic experience for Signe,” Whelan says. “It’s 10 minutes of her screaming and yelling.”

Martin Miles, product director for Miles Industries, says the lawsuits are a first for his company. “We’ve never had a complaint like this in our 30 years of selling gas fireplaces,” he says. “I don’t think it is meritorious.” Officials with BDR and Baxi could not be reached.

Gas fireplaces provide heat, pose danger

Though many gas fireplaces have been mainly decorative, the modern versions installed in millions of homes are designed to be energy efficient and serve as heating appliances.

Fearing a loss of aesthetic appeal, most manufacturers have declined to include protective screens as a standard feature. And because a fireplace is an expensive, discretionary purchase, the companies have been reluctant to stress the burn risk to avoid losing sales.

A working group of industry representatives is considering recommending revisions to the existing voluntary standard. Changes could include requiring screens, tougher warnings or both. The members “are committed to arriving at a solution,” says Greg Orloff, director of energy for CSA Standards, a Cleveland-based group that coordinates the standards process. “No one wants to see anyone injured on any product.”

The fireplace standard was certified in 1998 by the influential American National Standards Institute, and has been revised a few times since. Under ANSI rules, the process must be open to a diverse range of interests, including consumer representatives. But as a practical matter, few but those with a financial stake — such as fireplace makers and installers and gas utilities — have the expertise and money to participate.

In 2009, the standards committee approved an amped-up warning depicting a hand near flames and the words: “Hot Glass Will Cause Burns.” But the warning usually appears in owners manuals that few consumers read and many never see. That’s because the buyer may be a building contractor, a public establishment, or the original homeowner rather than the second owner or renter who lives there now.

The vote by the Consumer Product Safety Commission followed a letter to its chairman, Inez Tenenbaum, from Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., calling for action and quoting at length from a January report by FairWarning that appeared in a number of news outlets. Requesting comments on the two petitions is only a first step in a laborious rule-making process that could be abandoned if the commission decides that the industry is taking effective action.

One of the petitions, calling for mandatory safety screens, was filed by Carol Pollack-Nelson, a safety consultant and former member of the commission staff.

“While it is common knowledge that the interior of the fireplace gets hot,” she wrote, “the average consumer has no reason to suspect that the glass front of a gas fireplace presents an acute and severe burn hazard.”

The other petition was submitted by William S. Lerner, a New York inventor. He asked the commission to require a high temperature warning system, such as the one he has developed, that would project an alert on the front of the fireplace “that will remain visible from the time the fireplace is lit until the glass is cool enough to touch safely.”

  • andy

    My stove gets hot, too, but I make sure no children even go by it. Anyone who thinks a container holding fire doesn’t get hot needs their head examined.

    • LP

      It’s best to teach children not to touch a fireplace whether it is ON or OFF!!! I’m with Andy. Fire is HOT no matter what the appliance or situation.

  • KH

    While I feel bad for the child getting burned, I have to agree with the others posters here. Dad didn’t realize the glass would get that hot….REALLY?? Frivolous lawsuit.

  • BD

    The other commenters clearly don’t have kids. My oven has a glass front and doesn’t get hot. Clearly the technology is there and fireplace makers just don’t use it. While you know that the glass of the fireplace gets hot, kids will be kids and can circumvent just about any precaution. Take your eyes off them for 10 seconds and an accident can happen.

    Also, these types of fireplaces produce more burns than an open fire would because in our mind the glass seems like it might be a shield of sorts. And the temperature these manufactures let it get to is ridiculous! 500 degrees is absurd. This is definitely a legit lawsuit and I hope manufacturers open their eyes. Placing such a thing at perfect child height is insane.