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Child's death from tipping stove leads to lawsuit
Oven safety

Child's death from tipping stove leads to lawsuit

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OVERLAND • Deondre Watson Jr. was killed in an accident that was rare, preventable and the subject of a continuing public awareness campaign.

The 2-year-old was crushed in his family's kitchen here on July 11 when the stove tipped over on him. Safety experts say a simple bracket, required in some jurisdictions, would have saved him.

Last week, the boy's parents, Deondre Watson Sr. and Diana Taylor, filed a wrongful-death lawsuit in St. Louis County Circuit Court seeking unspecified damages from the Oak Tree Apartments, where they live. They claim the landlord should have secured the appliance.

Their attorneys declined to talk about the case. The owner of the apartments, at 9715 Cedar Glen Drive, did not return calls seeking comment. The owner's lawyer said they were not yet aware of the suit.

But the underlying story is well-known. At least 34 people have been killed in similar accidents across the country since 1980, according to officials and news accounts.

The accidents are frustrating for safety advocates, who have tried to years to get people to recognize the risk and react by installing a simple bracket.

"This is something that should never happen," said Fred Pritzker, a personal injury attorney in Minneapolis who has represented several families in tip-over accidents. "We've known about this lurking disaster in homes for years. Yet it's inexpensive and easy to fix."

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission counted 107 incidents resulting in injury or death from 1980 through 2006. Those included 33 fatalities — nearly half involving children under age 2 — and 84 injuries. Regardless of age, most injuries were burns from hot liquids spilled from pots or pans when the range tipped.

Pressure put on an open over door, as from a climbing child, may result in enough leverage for a stove to pitch forward.

For example, Raven Holbert, 3, of Sedalia, Mo., died in December 2001 after she opened the stove door in her family's kitchen while reaching for cookies on a countertop, according to court records. The blow to her chest left her dead two days later.

In 2009, a Modesto, Calif., toddler died two days before his second birthday when he climbed onto an oven door, according to news accounts. Investigators said he opened the oven to use the door as a step.

The problem dates to the 1980s, when appliance manufacturers began making stoves lighter. Eventually, the industry agreed to a voluntarily fix: It began providing anti-tip brackets beginning in 1991. Every new stove is supposed to include warnings and instructions on installing the brackets.

Now, the challenge is getting homeowners and appliance installers to use them.

In 2007, consumer experts estimated that as many as 45 million American homes had stoves without an anti-tip device.

"Often people move into homes where a range is already installed and don't think twice about it," said Jill Notini, of the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers. "Or when the range is being installed, the homeowner may not be standing over the installer. They become aware of it after it's too late."

Many communities require a bracket as a condition of getting an occupancy permit.

St. Louis County's code enforcement inspectors won't pass a property unless the oven is installed to the manufacturer's specifications. If the maker requires an anti-tip bracket, so do the inspectors, officials said.

Private home inspector Billy Boerner said about 95 percent of the properties he inspects in the St. Louis area do not have a bracket. He said he recommends them whether they are required or not.

"It's a safety hazard," said Boerner, owner of STL Home Inspection Services. "People don't have a clue about it. People just don't read the instructions to everything they buy."

An after-market bracket costs about $30.

"Sometimes, people don't necessarily want to put another hole in the floor or wall to tether the stove," Notini said. "But that is short-term thinking."

Joan Claybrook, former president of the Public Citizen advocacy group in Washington, pressed policymakers for years about this issue. "We tried to lobby Congress to ask for a recall," she said. "They wouldn't do it."

Claybrook said the industry should redesign stoves to remain stable without a bracket. Manufacturers say their products are already safe, if installed properly.

Pritzker said that's not enough. "When you are designing a product, your first obligation is to design out the danger," he said. "It's not just the fault of the person who bought and installed it. It's the responsibility of everyone down the line."

He said accidents have led to lawsuits against manufacturers, home builders and installers.

Many of his clients have settled such suits, he said, but he added that he cannot talk publicly about it because of confidentiality agreements.

In 2008, Sears settled a class action lawsuit in Madison County, agreeing to fix at least 3.9 million stoves that it sold and installed from July 2, 2000, through Sept. 18, 2007.

The company agreed to install anti-tip devices for free, or pay $100 to anyone who has paid Sears or a third party to install the device.

More information is available from the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers online at http://www.aham.org/consumer/ht/d/sp/i/2319.

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