The death of a small child is a tragedy no family should have to endure. But sometimes it happens, and the family members must carry the grief with them for the rest of their lives.
In a wrongful death case, a family sues the party responsible for the death of their loved one. If during the lawsuit, the family decides to settle the case, they might insist that part of the settlement includes action that will make such tragic events less likely to happen in the future. To look beyond your own grief and try to do what’s right for others takes a special kind of strength—and it helps to have Ohio wrongful death attorneys who are willing to look beyond the obvious to make it happen.
A family’s daily struggle turns tragic
It was fall when the Smith* family moved into an apartment complex in central Ohio. The complex, which had been purchased three years earlier by an out-of-state company, was run down, and the new owner did little to make upgrades or basic repairs. On moving day, the Smiths found themselves in a unit that was in much worse condition than the one they had been shown when they signed their lease.
As winter came and the temperature dropped, the Smiths noticed the heating system for their apartment was not working well. They made numerous attempts to get the property’s management team to address the issue, but by February the heating system was still not fixed.
The Smiths—with three small children, ages 2, 4 and 7—did what other families in the complex were doing to make their winter days livable. They used an electric space heater, covered drafty windows as best they could with plastic, and, on the coldest days, resorted to turning on their apartment’s old electric stove.
One morning, Mrs. Smith was in the back bedroom with her 2-year-old daughter, while her 4-year-old son was playing a video game in another room. At one point, Mrs. Smith heard the game become idle and asked her daughter to find out where her brother had gone.
The little girl came back and said, “He’s in the oven.”
Wrongful death and a family’s grief
Mrs. Smith rushed to find her 4-year-old son with the stove tipped over on top of him, his lower half trapped in the oven. While we may never know exactly what happened, it seems the boy had tried to climb on the stove, causing it to tip over onto him and pin him to the floor. He couldn’t call out, or even breathe.
His mother tried to administer CPR and called 911. The emergency squad arrived, but it was all to no avail. The little boy had died from asphyxiation from being pinned under the stove.
The Smiths struggled with their grief and feelings of guilt for nearly 18 months before they contacted us about a potential wrongful death action. That kind of delay is not unusual in cases like this. Families need time to deal with the impact of the tragedy, and with feelings of guilt that, in cases like this, are unavoidable but never deserved.
The weight of property management negligence
As the Smiths’ attorneys, we investigated how a stove could be tipped over by a 4-year-old child. We talked to maintenance personnel, responders to the scene, and officials for the city where the apartment complex was located. We interviewed industry experts and spent a great deal of time putting together the history of stoves, how they’re made, and if there were steps that the property owners should have taken to prevent the child’s death.
As it turned out—there were.
Older models of electric stoves were prone to being top heavy, and to prevent them from tipping, oven manufacturers began requiring that anti-tip brackets be installed to secure the stove to the floor. That safety standard had been in place since 1991. The Consumer Product Safety Commission did a study about anti-tip brackets, and there have been several notable lawsuits filed over the years regarding failure to use them.
It’s a fix that takes about 10 minutes and costs about $10. And in this case, the brackets would have saved a child’s life. But they were never installed.
We learned from members of the maintenance crew that they had started to install the anti-tip brackets in some units but were instructed not to because it was slowing down their work orders. That left some stoves in the apartment complex with brackets. It left others, like the Smiths’, without brackets, waiting to tip.
A settlement for the sake of safety
We filed a wrongful death suit on behalf of the Smiths, but after much investigation and a round of mediation, the family reached a settlement with the property management company.
In cases like this, a settlement has some advantages over going to trial. First, it’s less time consuming and costly for all parties. It also allowed the family to avoid reliving their trauma again and again while preparing for depositions and trial. But, perhaps most importantly, a settlement allows plaintiffs to ask for conditions beyond money. In a trial, all a jury can do is award money. It’s a horrible substitute for the loss of a child, but it’s all a jury can do.
The Smiths, to their credit, wanted something more. They wanted to be sure that some good could come out of the tragedy of their son’s death. As part of their settlement, they asked that the property management company prepare and issue a public service announcement to alert other property owners about the importance of using anti-tip brackets.
Hopefully, you never find yourself in a similar situation, but if you do, don’t hesitate to reach out to us. We’re here to help.
The outcome of any client’s case will depend on the particular legal and factual circumstances of the case.
*Names in this article have been changed to protect our client’s privacy.