A sad defective toy lawsuit out of Massachusetts is a reminder that defective consumer products can cost lives. In Aleo v. SLB Toys USA Inc., Michael Aleo sued Toys R Us, SLB Toys and Amazon.com for selling an inflatable pool slide that collapsed under his wife, Robin Aleo, causing her death at the age of 29. A Massachusetts jury found Toys R Us liable for negligence, breach of warranty and wrongful death, because it imported the slide to the United States without testing it for compliance with federal safety regulations applicable to swimming pool slides. The jury awarded $2.64 million in compensatory damages to the Aleo family and $18 million in punitive damages, finding Toys R Us grossly negligent. Toys R Us appealed on several grounds, but the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court found no errors and that the punitive damages were not unconstitutionally excessive.
The Aleos were visiting Michael’s uncle, whose wife had purchased a Banzai Falls In-Ground Pool Slide from Toys R Us. The slide was made in China and imported by Toys R Us, which contracted with a safety tester before importing. The tester did not test for compliance with the federal pool slides regulation, and no party requested this. The slide is made of fabric and inflated with an electric fan; it is meant to be installed next to an in-ground swimming pool. During the visit, the side collapsed as Robin slid down face-first, causing her to break her neck and sever her spinal cord. Michael and another man pulled her from the swimming pool and brought her to the hospital, where doctors told her family she would never breathe or move on her own again. The next day, her family removed life support. She left behind a 15-month-old daughter. Her family filed a dangerous products lawsuit.
On appeal, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court upheld every ruling challenged by Toys R Us. It first ruled that the trial court was not wrong to exclude evidence of alleged misuse; some was hearsay and the rest was an expert’s reconstruction that admittedly didn’t parallel the actual accident. Toys R Us also argued that the trial judge should not have permitted Aleo to call the slide “illegal”; because it didn’t comply with the federal slide regulations, the high court found the inference reasonable. For that reason, there was sufficient evidence to support the findings of negligence and breach of warranty, the Supreme Judicial Court said. It was admitted that the slide wasn’t tested for compliance with the regulation, which was designed to prevent this type of accident, and indeed did violate it. And there was sufficient evidence of gross negligence, the court said, in that violation, the lack of care in testing and the fact that Toys R Us employs one safety compliance officer for 4,000 certificates of compliance per month. Finally, the court found the punitive damages not grossly excessive in light of the compensatory damages and civil penalties, as well as Toys R Us’s “substantial degree of reprehensibility.”
I regret that winning this lawsuit won’t give the Aleos back their wife and mother. No plaintiff I’ve ever represented in a products liability lawsuit wants millions of dollars more than they want their loved ones restored and whole—but lawsuits can’t do that. The large compensatory damages payment in this case reflects the court’s best attempts to put a value on Robin Aleo’s life, including the loss of her earnings as well as her companionship and guidance. The larger punitive damages payment serves a slightly different purpose: giving Toys R Us an incentive to avoid importing unreasonably dangerous toys in the future.
Based in St. Louis and Belleville, Ill., Carey, Danis & Lowe represents people who have suffered serious injuries or lost a loved one because of someone else’s negligence. To tell us your story and learn more about your rights, contact us through our website or call today at 1-877-678-3400 for a free consultation.
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