Cases that Made a Difference
Workplace Health and Safety
The Texas City Refinery Explosion - From Grief to Philanthropy
In 2005, a catastrophic explosion at an oil refinery in Texas City, Texas, owned by the British industrial giant BP, killed 15 refinery workers and injured 170 more. The blast was felt up to five miles away. Later investigation showed that alarms and gauges that should have warned of overfilled equipment did not work properly.
Twenty-year-old Eva Rowe lost both parents in the blast. While BP tried to settle all claims stemming from the explosion confidentially to avoid publicity, Rowe refused to accept justice in secret. On the day jury selection was due to begin, the corporation agreed to a remarkable public settlement. BP admitted that it had been negligent, apologized to Rowe and the other families and injury victims, and donated more than $32 million to medical and safety-oriented institutions and to two of the family’s favorite organizations. The first donation went to the Blocker Burn Unit in Galveston, where nearly two dozen BP victims were being treated.
BP also agreed to release internal documents from the case, so that the public could see the evidence of the corporation’s negligence and the energy industry could analyze how future refinery explosions could be prevented. The lessons learned from those records will set new industry standards and prevent future accidents.
Sources: Brad Hem, “Daughter Settles With BP In Parents' Death,” Houston Chronicle, November 10, 2006, http://www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/business/4324744.html; “Daughter of BP Victims Fights and Wins,” CBS News, January 9, 2007, http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2007/01/09/earlyshow/main23 39874.shtml.
Toys That Kill
When Penny Sweet, from Redmond, Washington, purchased two Magnetix toys for her son’s 10th birthday in 2005, she could not have imagined that the building sets would soon kill her 22-month old son, Kenny.
Kenny was not allowed to play with the toys because his parents knew they posed a potential choking hazard. What the parents did not realize was that toys plastic parts could break open, spilling small, powerful magnets onto the carpet, where they would remain out of the sight of an adult or older child, but easily found and swallowed by a curious toddler.
Kenny fell ill not long after ingesting the magnets. At first, his parents thought he had caught the stomach bug his father, Kenneth Sr., had suffered from the week before. Unable to hold down solid food, Kenny rested in a beanbag chair next to the dining room table while his family ate Thanksgiving dinner. What the Sweets didn’t know was that nine tiny magnets had attached together in Kenny’s intestines and were slowly cutting off the blood supply to parts of his bowels, causing the tissue to die and allowing gangrene to set in. He died that night.
Following the death of their son, the Sweets filed a complaint with the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), the federal agency responsible for regulating consumer products. The toy’s manufacturer, Mega Bloks said it had “no record or knowledge of a similar occurrence involving this toy.” However, both the CPSC and the corporation had received repeated complaints that the magnets were coming loose, including at least two life-threatening incidents.
Months went by without action from the corporation or the CPSC, while 3.8 million Magnetix toys sat on store shelves. By this point the CPSC had received at least 1,500 reports of magnets coming loose. The toys were eventually recalled, but not before 34 children were injured, at least 15 of whom were hurt after Kenny’s death. Incredibly, although the CPSC negotiated a voluntary recall, the corporation insisted the terms of the agreement allow them to continue to sell the toys that were already on store shelves.
The Sweets turned to the civil justice system seeking not only restitution for the loss of their child but also a permanent injuction to keep Mega Bloks from further manufacture or distribution of the deadly toys. Although the corporation denied knowledge of other injuries caused by the toys, litigation revealed they had indeed known of the life-threatening dangers.
Mega Bloks has since promised to increase factory inspections and make the toys safer. The CPSC, in turn, responded to Kenny’s death by implementing a new safety standard test that toys with small magnets must pass before they can be placed on store shelves.
Sources: Sources: Patricia Callaghan, “Toy Magnets Kill Young Boy,” Chicago Tribune, May 5, 2007; Patricia Callaghan, “Inside the Botched Recall of a Dangerous Toy,” Chicago Tribune, May 7, 2007; Patricia Callaghan, “Finger-Pointing Furious in Deal Gone Sour,” Chicago Tribune, May 7, 2007; Tom Paulson, “Parents Are Warned About the Toy Magnetix,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, March 17, 2006; Eric Wilkinson, “Federal Government Recalls Toy in Wake of Local Death,” King 5 News, March 31, 2006; Press Release: Child’s Death Prompts Replacement Program of Magnetic Building Sets, U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, March 31, 2006; Press Release: Magnetix Magnetic Building Set Recall Expanded, U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, April 19, 2007; Sweet et al v. Rose Art Industries Inc et al, 2:06-cv-00527.
The Ford Firestone Fiasco
On a beautiful Saturday in March 2000, Donna Bailey, a 43-year old mother of two, traveled with two friends to a climbing expedition in Texas in a Ford Explorer equipped with Firestone tires. One of the tires suddenly started to separate, and the Explorer skidded and rolled. Despite wearing her seatbelt, Bailey was left paralyzed from the neck down.
Defective Firestone tires on Ford Explorers took the lives of at least 271 people and seriously injured many more before the companies issued the largest tire recall in history. Internal company documents would later show that the two corporations had known of the deadly tire separation and associated rollover problems for years but had done everything they could to hide it. They were undeterred by federal regulators at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which only had the power to impose a maximum fine of $925,000.
It was through the civil justice system that Donna Bailey was able to obtain some measure of justice. As part of her settlement, Ford agreed to release internal documents about the tire and rollover problems, and executives visited her to personally apologize.
Thanks to cases like that of Donna Bailey, the civil justice system publicly highlighted the problem and forced the companies and regulators to take action.
Sources: Michael Winerip, “Ford and Firestone Settle Suit Over Explorer Crash,” New York Times, January 9, 2001; Sara Nathan and Guillermo X. Garcia, “Ford Visit Led to Settlement,” USAToday, January 9, 2000; Cathy Booth Thomas, “A Nasty Turn for Ford?” TIME, January 7, 2001; Danny Hakim, “Another Recall Involving Ford, Firestone Tires And S.U.V.’s,” New York Times, February 27, 2004; “Firestone Recall Timeline,” CNNMoney, August 30, 2000; “Ford: A Crisis of Confidence,” BusinessWeek, September 18, 2000; Richmond Eustis, “Judge Orders Unsealing of Secret Firestone Documents From Fatal 1997 Crash,” Fulton County Daily Rep., September 29, 2000; James V. Grimaldi & Carrie Johnson, “Factory Linked To Bad Tires,” Washington Post, September 28, 2000; “Firestonewalling,” The Nation, September 27, 2000.
Bankrupting the Klan
In 1995 a Ku Klux Klan group called the Christian Knights burned down a 100-year-old black Baptist church in South Carolina, one of many church-burnings during the 1990s.
On behalf of the congregation, attorneys from the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), a civil rights law firm based in Alabama, sought to hold the Klan itself accountable.
SPLC attorneys exposed the Christian Knights’ involvement, including evidence showing then South Carolina Klan leader Horace King authorizing racist violence and stating, “the only good n----r church is a burned n----r church.”
After a five day trial the jury imposed restitution of $37.8 million against the Christian Knights and its leaders–the largest ever against a hate group.
Though the total was reduced to $21.5 million by the judge, the case rang the death knell for the Christian Knights. The Klan group was forced to give up its land and headquarters, and have the land deed amended to prohibit its use ever again by white supremacists. The proceeds from its sale went to the church congregation. The Christian Knights was transformed from one of the nation’s most active Klan groups to a defunct organization.
Sources: “Landmark Cases: Battling Hate Groups,” Southern Poverty Law Center, http://www.splcenter.org/legal/landmark/hate.jsp Wesley Smith, “Fighting for Public Justice,” Trial Lawyers for Public Justice, 2001.
Prescription Drug Safety
Propulsid's Deadly Side Effects
From 1993 to 1998, pharmaceutical manufacturer Johnson & Johnson made over $1 billion in sales from Propulsid, a prescription heartburn medication, even as the company knew hundreds of patients were dying from lethal side effects.
By early 1995, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had received reports of 18 patients who had developed serious heart problems after taking the medication. Within 18 months, the number had risen to 57. Children were at particular risk, and federal regulators told the company it would not approve the drug for pediatric sales.
Documents from lawsuits on behalf of injured patients against Johnson & Johnson showed that the company did not conduct studies recommended by federal regulators and never published other studies that might have warned physicians of possible risks associated with the drug. Moreover, while Johnson & Johnson agreed not to market Propulsid directly for children because of their increased risk of side effects, the company did push so-called educational efforts advocating the drug’s use in pediatric patients. The educational efforts had the effect of sidestepping the agreement not to market for children. Documents would show that Johnson & Johnson knew that 90 percent of the company’s cherryflavored liquid Propulsid went to children, even though the company claimed it was aimed at geriatric patients.
By 1998, reports of side effects in children were so numerous that Johnson & Johnson executives debated limiting Propulsid’s pediatric use. The company banned sales for premature infants in some European countries, but senior executives overruled a ban in the United States. Later that year, the FDA proposed major changes to Propulsid’s warning label. The agency, however, did not have the power to order Johnson & Johnson to change the label, and so relied on them to voluntarily agree. The company’s internal analysis estimated the changes would cost over $250 million a year in lost sales, and so rejected almost all of them. Over the next three years, over 100 infants were injured and at least 24 died.
In all, at least 300 people died and as many as 16,000 were injured by Propulsid. The civil justice system played a major role in bringing the facts of Johnson & Johnson’s deceptive practices to light. In 2004, Johnson & Johnson agreed to pay $90 million in restitution to injured patients and the families of those who were killed. Propulsid has now been discontinued in the United States.
Sources: Gardiner Harris and Eric Koli, “Lucrative Drug, Danger Signals and the F.D.A.,” New York Times, June 10, 2005; MDL-1355 Propulsid Product Liability Litigation – website created by presiding judge as repository for documents related to the Propulsid case - http://propulsid.laed.uscourts.gov/Default.htm; Moore TJ, Weiss SR, Kaplan S, Blaisdell CJ, Reported Adverse Drug Events in Infants and Children under 2 Years of Age, PEDIATRICS 2002 Nov; 110(5):e53), available at http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/cgi/reprint/.
Holding HMOs Accountable
n 1995, Mark and Barbara Chipps received an unsigned letter from their insurance company, Humana Health Insurance Co. of Florida, informing them that their four-year-old daughter, Caitlyn, who was born with cerebral palsy, would be terminated from a special program for terribly and chronically ill patients called medical case management.
There was no medical diagnosis supporting Humana's decision, and it clearly violated the terms of the family's insurance agreement. When the Chipps’ appealed to the company, they were told that Caitlyn's speech, occupational and physical therapies would be terminated as well.
The Chipps’ exhausted their resources in an attempt to continue Caitlyn's care. Caitlyn regressed and began walking into walls. Finally the Chipps’ turned to the civil justice system for help.
The ensuing litigation uncovered widespread fraud at Humana. The insurance company had unlawfully denied coverage to more than 100 catastrophically ill and injured children in Florida in an effort to boost its bottom line. In one instance, Humana had even sent a letter to a child – not the parent – who had been in a coma for 14 years advising him that he had improved to such an extent that he no longer needed the medical case management. The insurance company was also paying bonuses to physicians and nurses based on the number of medical claims denied each month.
The jury found that Humana intentionally disregarded its insureds' health and safety, and awarded Caitlyn and her family restitution equal to the $78.5 million Humana thought it could save by cutting children’s coverage. The insurance company fought the award, and the Chipps’ later settled for $2.2 million. More importantly, Caitlyn was put back on the medical case management, and Humana’s behavior was exposed for all the world to see.
Sources: Stephen Van Drake, “Attorney Battles Humana, Again,” South Florida Business Journal, June 28, 2002; “5-Year Old Cerebral Palsy Victim Wins Landmark Trial Against Humana,” Ricci- Leopold Law Firm, http://www.riccilaw.com/CM/Articles/Articles69.asp; Chipps v. Humana Health Insurance Co. of Florida, Inc., No. CL 96-00423 AE (Fla., Palm Beach County Cir. Ct. Jan. 4, 2000.