Karen Bentley of Rosedale is suing a lighter company and the adults charged with babysitting her then 5-year-old son after he was badly burned in 2005. Jury selection will begin in Queens Supreme Court next week.
Daniel Slowly was in the kitchen at the Rosedale home of Sonia Stewart on Nov. 28 when he started playing with a Scripto Aim ’n Flame lighter, the kind used to ignite barbecues, and set himself ablaze, according to Robert Goldberg, the lawyer representing the child’s mother.
But the horror didn’t end there.
The toddler ran through the house trying to extinguish the flames and in the process set the furniture on fire before Stewart’s teenage daughter threw him in the bathtub and doused him with water. But by that time Daniel had sustained third-degree burns over about 60 percent of his body, according to Goldberg.
“It’s absolutely horrific, what happened to this child,” Goldberg said Monday. “Daniel was traumatized by the fire — he won’t talk about it with anyone except his mother. It ruined his childhood. It ruined his entire life.”
Goldberg added that when he tries to converse with the boy about the incident, he covers his ears. “He doesn’t want to hear it,” the lawyer said.
Daniel, now 11 years old, required extensive surgery and multiple skin grafts and is permanently scarred. He will have to continue the medical procedures until he reaches adulthood and his skin stops stretching and growing, Goldberg said. The house where the incident occurred was burned so badly that it was uninhabitable for a year.
Daniel’s medical bills, which Goldberg said were hundreds of thousands of dollars, were covered by Medicaid, but it was still hard on the boy’s mother, a single working parent, because she would have to leave him and go to work.
In October 2006, Bentley sued Stewart and her daughter, Nadine, the adult who was hired to babysit Daniel, but in July 2008, the litigation expanded to include the Scripto Manufacturing Company, because, Goldberg says, it did not properly childproof the product. Scripto denies the charge.
“The family is obviously responsible,” Goldberg said. “But the manufacturer did not do anything to make the product safe, and denied that there were any issues until recently.”
While Goldberg said in New York State, one does not put the dollar amount one is suing for on a complaint, he estimates the figure to be in excess of $10 million. He asserts that there was a defect in the lighter’s trigger, making it easy to ignite.
Goldberg said that when the product was initially placed on the market, it was manufactured in Mexico and did not have a tab on the trigger mechanism to prevent it from lighting. It was only after production was moved to China that the feature was included.
Even in sworn affidavits, Goldberg said, the Scripto company never acknowledged that the lighter had been modified or changed in any way until about one month ago.
“Scripto denies the plaintiff’s allegations that the lighter was in any way defective or failed to meet the rigorous federal standards,” Larry Golkin, an attorney for Scripto, said in an email. “Federal law requires lighters to be ‘child resistant’ not ‘childproof.’”
Golkin said in an email that there was no adult supervision as Daniel and another young boy who was being looked after by Stewart, Christopher Charles, 6, were upstairs playing with the lighter.
He added that there is contradictory evidence as to whether Sonia or Nadine were even in the house. Goldberg insists Sonia was there, but downstairs doing laundry.
Golkin said Christopher had taken the lighter out of the drawer where he knew it was kept and used it to set fire to a piece of paper and napkin, both of which he doused in the sink. Then he allegedly lit the bottom of Daniel’s shirt on fire.
Goldberg said that the only two eye witnesses to the incident were Daniel and Christopher. He added that Christopher testified that Daniel set his own shirt on fire and that he never used the lighter at all. Either way, the lawyer said, it is irrelevant, the important thing is that a child — 5 or 6 years old was able to operate the lighter.
But Golkin reiterated that there was nothing wrong with the product’s design.
“According to extensive pre-market testing performed by an independent consumer product testing laboratory on the lighter pursuant to federal regulations and submitted to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, the lighter meets and exceeds all standards for child resistance,” he said, adding “Child resistance is, of course, never a substitute for adult supervision.”
Goldberg insisted the lighter was faulty.
“They are trying to point the finger at everyone but themselves,” he charged. “Did they put a dangerous product out there that children could operate? Of course they did.”
Bentley originally sued the Department of Education for releasing Daniel to an unauthorized caregiver, according to Golkin, because a teenager, not Sonia or Nadine, supposedly picked up Daniel from school. But they discontinued that action after it was determined that Nadine picked up Daniel.
Bentley also sued the clothing manufacturer that made Daniel’s shirt, claiming that it did not meet federal flammability standards, Golkin said, and received settlements of over $1.5 million from the defendant.