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From Products Liability Law Daily, March 12, 2015

Maker of door knob cover safety device not liable for child’s death

By Susan Lasser, J.D.

In an action against the manufacturer of a door knob cover which was intended as a child safety device, a federal jury in Missouri found the manufacturer was not liable for claims asserted against it by the parents of a child who defeated the device, opened the door, and left his home, and later was found drowned in a nearby pond (Coterel v. Dorel Juvenile Group, Inc., March 10, 2015)

Background. According to their complaint, the action arose from the November 29, 2010 death of James Coterel’s and Crystal Naylor’s 23-month-old son, Jacob, after he escaped from a door equipped with a Safety 1st Clear Grip Door Knob Cover designed and manufactured by Dorel Juvenile Group, Inc. d/b/a Safety 1st, Dorel U.S.A., Inc., and Dorel Design and Development, Inc., and distributed by Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. The Door Knob Cover is a piece of child safety equipment that is clamped to a door handle to prevent a child from turning the handle and opening the door while still allowing an adult to open the door. The product consists of two identical halves that incorporate six ribs to align and lock the two halves together. In the middle of each half is a gripping tab that is designed to deform when an adult grips and turns the door knob.

The child’s parents realized that their son was learning to open the doors in their home, so they purchased the Door Knob Cover to provide safety for him and put it on the front door. The complaint relates that in the early hours of November 29, 2010, Jacob climbed out of his crib and to the front door of his house where he encountered the Door Knob Cover. He defeated the device, leaving it in pieces beside the door, allowing him to open the front door. He proceeded to do so and walked to a nearby pond, into which he fell. Jacob suffered hypothermia and drowned before his parents woke up at 6:00 a.m. and found him in the pond.

Products liability and negligence claims. The parents asserted products liability and negligence claims against Dorel Juvenile Group, Inc. (Dorel). They alleged that the Door Knob Cover was defective, and that it was unreasonably dangerous in ways that included that it was easily defeated by young children; it had inadequate safety devices; it failed to give adequate instruction and warnings; it lacked a failsafe device; its halves were too easily pulled apart; and it had an inadequate locking system. The parents claimed that as a direct and proximate result of the alleged defective and unreasonably dangerous condition of the Door Knob Cover, Jacob defeated the device, opened the door, and walked approximately 150 feet to the pond. They asserted that they used the Door Knob Cover in “the ordinary and customary manner or in the manner in which Dorel Juvenile Group, Inc. should have reasonably anticipated.” They contended that “as a direct and proximate result of defective and unreasonably dangerous condition of the Door Knob Cover … Jacob fell in the nearby pond, got hypothermia and drowned”; and that they “suffered severe acute and prolonged physical and mental pain and suffering.”

Under a negligence theory, the parents’ allegations included that Dorel “designed, prepared, manufactured, maintained, advertised, distributed, supplied, and sold” the device and its component parts in a manner that made it easily defeated by young children; that Dorel designed and manufactured the Door Knob Cover with inadequate safety devices, so that the product was “a dangerous instrumentality and likely to cause severe and permanent injuries to children protected” by it when it was used in the ordinary and usual manner, or in the manner in which Dorel should have reasonably anticipated; and that the manufacturer failed to give adequate instruction and warning concerning the necessity of periodic inspection, maintenance and danger of relying on the Door Knob Cover to protect children.

Jury instructions and verdict. The jury was instructed that it should find for the parents if (1) the door knob cover was then in a defective condition unreasonably dangerous when put to a reasonably anticipated use, (2) the door knob cover was used in a manner reasonably anticipated, and (3) the defective condition that existed when the door knob cover was sold, directly caused or directly contributed to cause Jacob’s death. However, the jury was told that it’s finding based on that question must be for Dorel, unless it believes that (1) when it was sold, the Clear Grip door knob cover was in a defective condition unreasonably dangerous when put to a reasonably anticipated use, (2) the door knob cover was used in a manner reasonably anticipated, and (3) the defective condition that existed when the door knob cover was sold directly caused or directly contributed to cause Jacob's death.

Another question before the jury required a verdict for the parents if they found that Jacob was able to remove the door knob cover; Dorel failed to use ordinary care to either manufacture or design the door knob cover to be reasonably safe from children being able to remove it; and that failure directly caused or directly contributed to cause Jacob’s death. However, the jury was told that it should find for Dorel on the question unless it believed that Jacob was able to remove the door knob cover; Dorel failed to use ordinary care to either manufacture or design the door knob cover to be reasonably safe from children being able to remove it; and such failure directly caused or directly contributed to cause Jacob's death.

The jury found in favor of the manufacturer on these questions.

The case is No. 13-4218-CV-C-SRB.

Attorneys: Dale Robert Funk (Brown & Crouppen PC) for James Coterel. Jonathan Judge (Schiff Hardin LLP) and Kenneth Duvall (Berowitz, Oliver, Williams, Shaw & Eisenbrandt) for Dorel Juvenile Group Inc.

Companies: Dorel Juvenile Group Inc.

MainStory: TopStory HouseholdProductsNews DesignManufacturingNews WarningsNews DamagesNews MissouriNews

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