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Car Seat Heater Burn Injury Cases

Car seat heaters are commonplace but these very heaters that offer comfort to many of us, are often the cause of severe, permanent burn injuries to paraplegics, quadriplegics or others that have lower body sensory deficits.  Many of the electric car seat heaters are defective and overheat in spots, with temperatures running well above the safe level, often to 135 even as high as 160 degrees.

Most of us don’t consider that risk because we can feel the heat and promptly turn off the heater.  But individuals who have through some misfortune, have developed lower body sensory deficits, typically from paraplegia or quadriplegia, will not feel that heat and will not know the seat is dangerous defective until they arrive home and find that their third degree burns are so severe the skin on the buttocks comes off with their clothing.       

To date we have settled three of these cases and are handling a number of others, not only in the Northwest but across the nation.  We have identified over 400 instances of defective car seat heaters and no less than 30 of paraplegics or quadriplegics that have suffered severe burns from defective seats.  Ironically, seat heaters of difference designs often prove to have the same dangerous defect of overheating.  But why the seat overheats is not the issue but does it overheat.  According to medical research, a temperature of 120 degrees for ten minutes is sufficient to cause a third degree burn on human skin. 

Therefore a seat with such a defect is unreasonably dangerous and the plaintiff has at least two theories upon which to proceed against the defendant.  First, negligence or misconduct in design and in failing to recall, and secondly, strict liability in that the product was defective and unreasonably dangerous.  (See RESTATEMENT (SECOND) OF TORTS, Section 402A, comment f.) .      

One manufacturer has, we believe in response to the cases that have been prosecuted, recalled certain models of the vehicles.  But the defect continues to exist in other models and the vehicles of other manufacturers.  Therefore it may be necessary again, to proceed through trial and obtain a judgment for punitive damages to motive the manufacturers to be certain that the seats are reasonably safe.  For punitive damages to succeed it will be necessary that the investigation and trial preparation involves extensive review of technical information and evidence that the products may harm a significant number of individuals using the vehicles, and additionally evidence of similar instances of harm known to the manufacturers.  In our investigation we have found these commonalities:

*  Burn victims have in each instance suffered from prior sensory deprivation;

*  The design of the heater systems are not adequate to detect local overheating or dangerous heating of particular spots and therefore fail to turn off;

*  It appears that the same companies often are the manufacturers of the dangerous seat heater system components;

*  Sensory deprived victims receive no warnings  in autos or owner manuals about the danger of such seats; and

*   Models with electrically heated seats are promoted by manufacturers for use by individuals by paraplegics and quadriplegics who have lost their sensory abilities.

We suggest that sufficient evidence has accumulated and that all of the major manufacturers are aware of the risk and have an obligation to eliminate them, and the failure to do so, if it results in continued severe burns for these individuals requires a judgment of punitive damages.

Arthur C. Johnson is the senior shareholder of the firm Johnson, Clifton , Larson & Schaller P.C..  Mr. Johnson's practice focuses on product liability, defective medical products, industrial and workplace injuries, defective vehicles and aircraft, and truck and complex vehicle collisions. He also has been extensively involved in federal, multi-district product liability litigation.

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