A pair of lawsuits has been filed on behalf of a West Ashley couple and two Florida residents who allege they were badly burned while using decorative firepots that burst into flames when they ignited the jelly-like fuel.
The suits allege negligence and target the firepots' maker, Georgia-based Napa Home and Garden Inc., as well as companies that supplied the fuel and packaging, according to attorneys from Motley Rice, which represents both couples.
Firepots blamed in burns, victims say citronella gel burned them like napalm, published 06/14/11
Also named in the lawsuits are stores that sold the Firelites firepots, including Hyams Landscape Contractors, which operates a garden center on James Island. The suits seek unspecified damages.
The businesses had no comment Tuesday on the legal action.
Napa halted sales of its gel burners and fuel this month as a precautionary measure after at least four similar burn incidents were recently reported around the country.
On June 14, the Consumer Product Safety Commission also issued a warning to consumers about gel fuels amid reports that the agency had opened an investigation into the firepots.
One lawsuit filed here concerns a May 21 incident that injured Rachael and Ken Smilowitz of West Ashley.
Rachael Smilowitz told The Post and Courier that a Napa firepot purchased at Hyams exploded into a fireball when her husband tried to light the gel fuel on the porch of their home.
Smilowitz, a 33-year-old mother of two, said the flames engulfed her legs and left her with second- and third-degree burns.
Her husband was burned trying to put out the flames, the lawsuit stated.
Rachael Smilowitz was rushed to Medical University Hospital, then transported to a burn center in Augusta. She has undergone multiple surgeries and a painful skin graft to repair the badly burned left foot she nearly lost in the incident.
An avid runner who has competed in marathons, Smilowitz said she now struggles to make it across her living room with the aid of a walker.
"I actually consider myself lucky," Smilowitz said this month. "I thank God it was my legs. It could have been my face. It could have been my mother-in-law or my husband or my kids. It just happened to go in that direction. It could have been a million times worse."
The second lawsuit concerns Barbara Satterfield, a Florida woman who was reportedly burned over 30 percent of her body by a torch-like flame during a similar accident while visiting relatives in Spartanburg on May 25. She remains in intensive care at the Augusta burn center.
Her husband, Rick, was seriously burned while trying to extinguish the flames, according to the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court. He is named as a plaintiff in the action as well.
Both complaints allege serious injuries due to negligent design, manufacturing and testing, as well as failure to warn on the part of Napa Home and Garden Inc.; Fuel Barons Inc., of Nevada; and Losorea Packaging Inc. of Georgia.
The firepots are fairly simple devices composed of a ceramic pot with a stainless steel cup in the middle. The gel is poured into the cup, then lit on fire. No wick is needed.
Motley Rice attorney Anne McGinness Kearse said thousands of the gel fuel products remain on the market and in the hands of consumers.
"Our clients have suffered excruciating pain and devastating injuries, and our hope is that this litigation will not only hold the responsible parties accountable but also help prevent similar tragedies from occurring in the future," she said.
Reach Glenn Smith at 937-5556.
Late Wednesday, the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission announced a voluntary recall of the fuel for the firepots. Read the story here.