FT. LAUDERDALE - A company that manufacturers a popular brand of pressure cooker has agreed to pay $26 million to a young girl who suffered horrific injuries after the device's lid blew open.
Lifetime Brands, manufacturers of the Vasconia pressure cooker, settled the action taken in a Florida court on behalf of five-year-old Samantha Gonzalez, who suffered severe burns over most of her body, and later required amputation of her leg and fingers on both hands.
A Broward County Circuit Court approved the agreement, believed by the plaintiff's legal team to be the first of this type to be settled. .
Lawyers for the girl, who was two at the time, argued that a defective lock mechanism caused the lid to blow open. They also claimed that the company had at some point recognized that the lock mechanism on its product was the wrong size, and changed its dimensions.
An estimated 100,000 of the older product remains on the secondary market, and in homes, according to lawyers for the young girl. They have sent a detailed letter to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), and urged the agency to order a recall.
Attorney John Uustal, who represented Gonzalez, said the two types are identical apart from the small, but crucial, difference in the lock mechanism.
Lifetime Brands did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the settlement and the claims made in the lawsuit, including that the company knew that the mechanism was potentially dangerous and quietly changed the specifications.
Uustal, of the Kelley Uustal law firm in Fort Lauderdale, explained that during what he described as a "difficult" investigation delving into why the cooker's top blew off, he and his team did not initially know the reason.
Police, fire, engineering experts, and the CPSC, examined pressure cookers manufactured by the company and found no defects.
But all the experts examined those manufactured in more recent years. Uustal told the Florida Record.
His team managed to track down an older one on ebay, which was examined by the law firm's own experts. The small difference in the lock mechanism was identified.
"It (the lawsuit) is the only one of this nature that we are aware of," Uustal said, citing as a reason that "it was very difficult to find" the nature of the problem.
"The company stopped production, fixed it and started using the right size part," Uustal explained, adding that it is not clear exactly when that happened as the legal team was unable to unearth information documenting the change.
Samantha was in the kitchen of her home with her grandmother when the accident happened, Uustal said.
The grandmother was lifting the pressure cooker off a surface when the lid blew off. She dropped the device, striking the girl and covering her with its scalding contents. Material was found across the kitchen, including on the ceiling, Uustal explained.
When the police arrived, they were only told that the cooker was dropped. Uustal's firm was contacted some months later and suit was filed approximately two years ago.
Samantha spent a year in hospital. An infection led to the amputations of her leg, hip, foot, and fingers on both hands.
"Several lawyers declined the case and it seemed a tragedy without remedy for Samantha’s massive lifetime medical needs," Uustal said.
While Uustal says it is his understanding this is the first settlement of this nature in relation to a pressure cooker, other cases have been filed and there are reports from various parts of the country of injuries caused while using the devices.
A special investigation by CBS Miami, broadcast in early 2017, reported 12 people suffered serious injuries caused by one particular product, the Tristar Power Cooker.
The report quoted Beth Morales claiming a problem with the lock mechanism led to her suffering er serious burns.
She told the broadcaster: "I released the steam valve twice to make sure all the steam was out. It has a lock mechanism on the lid that’s not supposed to allow you to turn it if the pressure is still in there,” she said. “And it did allow me to turn it, so I figured it was safe to open.”
When Morales pulled the lid up, the contents poured causing second-degree burns on her hands, arms and chest.