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Thursday, Sept. 15, 2011 05:09 pm

Firepot explosion results in lawsuit


Fuel used in outdoor decorative firepots has been recalled after dozens of explosions nationwide.

A Pleasant Plains couple is suing Ace Hardware and the manufacturer of a firepot used to repel insects after their seven-year-old son was burned when the pot exploded.

Bird Brain, which manufactured the ceramic firepot and an accompanying gel fuel, was slow to act after more than 50 explosions nationwide since December 2009, according to the lawsuit filed last month in Sangamon County Circuit Court by the parents of Alec Poos, who reportedly suffered second and third-degree burns on July 15.

According to the lawsuit, both Alec and his father Wesley Poos, who smothered the flames on his son with his own body, suffered burns. The Poos purchased the pot and fuel last spring at an Ace Hardware store in Springfield.

On Sept. 1, the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission announced that Bird Brain and eight other manufacturers of gel fuel for firepots had agreed to a voluntary recall. The commission reported 65 explosions which caused two deaths and burns serious enough that 34 people were hospitalized.

Both fatalities and nearly half of the explosions were tied to fuel manufactured by Napa Home and Garden, but the CPSC says that no gel fuel is safe.

“All pourable gel fuel, regardless of the manufacturer, poses flash fire hazards,” the commission said in a Sept. 1 press release. “Consumers should not attempt to use or fix pourable gel fuel bottles with homemade remedies, or replace the fuel with other flammable materials.”

The problem, according to lawyers for the Poos, is that the fuel contains isopropyl alcohol that burns with an almost invisible flame, especially when a firepot reservoir runs low. If gel fuel is poured onto a flame, an explosion that spews napalm-like gel onto nearby people and objects can result, the plaintiffs say.

On June 14, one month before the explosion in Pleasant Plains, the CPSC issued a press statement, saying it had started an investigation. Nine days later, Napa Home and Garden announced a recall of 460,000 containers of fuel and offered full refunds.

“By contrast, Defendant Bird Brain has not taken any steps to protect consumers,” lawyers for the Poos wrote in the lawsuit filed three weeks before the CPSC announced that the company had agreed to a voluntary recall.

Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan last month called for a ban on gel fuels used in firepots. Jeff Sipple, who lives in the Chicago area, spent two days in intensive care when a firepot exploded, according to media reports.

“It burst into a ball and actually lit the left side of my body on fire,” Sipple told WGN News. “As we were trying to put it out, I was trying to stop, drop and roll. To give you an idea of how hard it is to put this stuff out, as we’re rolling, it’s lighting the stuff that we’re touching on fire.”

Bird Brain, based in Michigan, has sold more than 1.3 million firepots and 1.5 million bottles of fuel, according to the Poos lawsuit. The home page of the company’s website, www.birdbrain.com, includes information about the recall, including a link to instructions on how to return unused fuel for a refund.

The lawsuit doesn’t indicate whether Alec Poos or his father were admitted to a hospital, but the Poos are asking for more than $50,000 in medical expenses and damages. Attorneys for the Poos declined comment, and the couple could not be reached, nor could representatives for Bird Brain. A woman at Ace Hardware said the company was not aware of the litigation and so could not comment.

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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