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- Product liability - Strict liability - Fabric flammability - Plaintiff sustained third degree burns when nightgown material ignited.

U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas

The plaintiff brought a strict liability action against Victoria’s Secret Stores, Inc. alleging that the nightgown that she had purchased from the defendant and was wearing caught on fire and ignited while she was attempting to reach into an oven with a potholder. The defendant maintained that the nightgown was made of safe materials and that the t-shirt that plaintiff was wearing over the nightgown actually was what ignited.

The 56-year-old plaintiff was alone at her lakehouse in Greers Ferry, Arkansas. She had cooked a frozen pizza in her electric oven. The plaintiff was wearing a cotton nightgown from the defendant over which she was wearing a t-shirt. The plaintiff reached into the oven to remove the pizza with a potholder and claimed that the long-sleeved, floor length nightgown ignited when she dropped the potholder which had caught fire onto the floor by the hem of the gown. The plaintiff sustained third degree burns over the majority of her abdomen, chest, shoulders, arms and portions of her face and back. The plaintiff was employed as the head nurse at a hospital and claimed permanent injury and the inability to return to her job. She incurred medical expenses of $________ and lost wages (past and future) of approximately $________.

The plaintiff alleged that the nightgown was unsuitable and defective because it was constructed from lightweight cotton.

The plaintiff alleged that due to the nature of the material, it ignited too easily and the fire spread too rapidly to permit the plaintiff to remove the burning garment. The plaintiff maintained that the defendant should have equipped the garment with a label regarding its flammability. Although the garment met the applicable federal standard for the flammability of ordinary wearing apparel, the plaintiff contended that the standard was inadequate, and that a sheet of newspaper passed the same flammability test. The plaintiff also claimed that there were other, better fabrics from which the garment should have been constructed, including ________% polyester or nylon that self- extinguishes if ignited, heavier weight cotton that would burn more slowly, or even cotton treated with flame-retardant chemicals.

The defendant argued that the garment was perfectly safe for use as adult wearing apparel. The nightgown was ordinary ________% cotton, the most popular fabric in the US. Even though the garment was lightweight, there is an abundance of lightweight cotton clothing on the market. The federal flammability standard has been used by the government and by industry for over 50 years as a "pass/fail" standard, and the nightgown passed the standard by a substantial margin. The defendant argued that the plaintiff’s own negligence in permitting the potholder to catch fire and then drop it on the ground was the cause of her injuries.

The defendant presented evidence to demonstrate that it was the t-shirt that the plaintiff was wearing over the nightgown and not the nightgown that initially ignited. Moreover, the defendant argued that the absence of any significant burn injuries to the plaintiff’s legs showed that the garment never ignited at the hem while it was being worn as the plaintiff alleged. The defendant’s expert reconstructed the incident using the remnants of the t- shirt and demonstrated to the jury that the more probable sequence of events was that the flaming potholder came in contact with the t-shirt and that ignited first.

The trial in this matter lasted for ten days and the jury deliberated for 7 = hours before returning its verdict. The jury returned a verdict in favor of the defendant.

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