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May 3, 2007

Steve's thoughts on court story

This was my favorite story to report on. With court stories, if you do enough research, you can often find that perfect human element to give the story some emotion. Flipping through more than a hundred civil suits in the Hennepin County District Court House was rough. The majority of the suits I paged through dealt with angry creditors who had not yet received their money from either poor or stubborn citizens ¾ nothing newsworthy in the least. Having to decipher legal jargon made it that much harder to find a story. As with any court document, the incident is written in a format that won’t make sense to you unless you have some background in law. When I first saw the court document that I would eventually write about, I didn’t know what the problem was. The front page just showed who was suing who. I noticed one person was bringing a legal suit against several large clothing companies. I thought to myself, ‘why would anyone sue a clothing company?’ After paging through 20 pages of legal jiberish, something caught my eye. I noticed one of the charges was listed as negligence for manufacturing flammable clothing. As I read a little further, I saw that someone had actually been burned when his ‘outdoor clothing’ caught fire. A burn victim was by far the best thing I had come across. When the receptionist at the desk printed out a copy of the document for me, she told me it would be $5. After paying out the ass for parking, I only had two bucks left on me. I though I was screwed, but with my smooth demeanor and a little sweet talkin’, I walked out of the building without paying a cent for the case documents.

After thoroughly going through the case report, I contacted the attorneys for the plaintiff. Apparently, lawyers can be buy folk and a little hard to track down. After several attempts at reaching the lawyers and not just their secretary, I finally caught the lead attorney in-between meetings. After drilling him on some of the essential details of the story, I found out that the plaintiff was a 7-year-old boy and the “outdoor clothes? were his pajamas. It was a sad story, but I felt as if I had struck gold. One thing that I had to understand was why the child was suing his parents. It was the father’s lighter that ended up burning young Austin, but I couldn’t believe that a boy would simply sue his parents. The attorney, Paul, explained to me through a long wind of lawyer speak that bringing charges against the parents, as well as the other corporations, Austin and his family would stand a better chance at winning the case. It was difficult to phrase it simply in the story, but as I put it:

“As a legal strategy, Austin’s attorneys are bringing charges against parents Amy and Blayne so they can have some control over which tactics the defense’s attorneys might use against them in the case. Strandness explained the goal is to make Amy and Blayne appear less at fault to the jury.?

I still think it could have been explained better, but I think I managed to get the idea across.

The path I took with the story was to tell how the corporations allegedly at fault manufactured clothing that was not in compliance with fire safety standards. With a little digging, I was able to find annual reports from Consumer Product Safety Commission. The report was full of great stuff. It gave me my statistics on the yearly total of children burned from their clothing catching fire, clothing which did not pass the flammability tests subjected to its fabrics. I thought it was a great tangent to go off on and probably the most logical one.

The perfect addition to my story would have been pictures to go along with it. If I would have met Austin, I would have liked to get a shot of him playing with his burn scars visible. Although some papers might find that in poor taste, I think it would really show readers the negative effects of buying cheap clothes that don’t meet safety standards. A second picture I would love to have is the one police must have taken of the pajamas, which caught fire. The photo of the charred and tattered remains of child’s clothing would send a strong message to parents everywhere to make sure this doesn’t happen to their kids.

Child burned from cheap pajamas

Steve Kuzj
Court Story
2/18/07

A 7-year-old South St. Paul boy who suffered severe burns when his pajamas caught on fire, filed a lawsuit this month against the producers of the clothing, its sellers and even his own parents.
As a minor, Austin Foley was granted his psychologist as guardian to represent him in his case. His parents are not permitted to act as his guardians because of the questions surrounding their involvement in their son’s injuries according to Austin’s attorney, Paul Strandness.
Austin’s attorneys have filed complaints against Family Dollar Stores Inc., Prestige Global Co. and J-K Sales Co. their role in selling the product Highland Outfitter sleepwear. The companies are all being sued for negligence, liability and breach of warranty.
The suit alleges Amy and Blayne Foley are responsible for Austin’s safety as his legal guardians and due to a possible failure in their parental duties, they are being sued for negligence as well.
As a legal strategy, Austin’s attorneys are bringing charges against parents Amy and Blayne so they can have some control over which tactics the defense’s attorneys might use against them in the case. Strandness explained the goal is to make Amy and Blayne appear less at fault to the jury.
Strandness said it is unclear who is ultimately at fault for producing and profiting from clothing that does not meet the set safety standards of the Consumer Product Safety Commission.
“We found that the pajamas Austin was wearing were not in compliance with the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s fire standards,? Strandness said. “It’s a strong case of liability for all parties involved.?
The defendants either refused to comment on the case or were unavailable.
Austin was 5 years old when he was burned in his home Jan. 13, 2005. His father Blayne, a smoker, left for work early that morning after placing his lighter on top of the kitchen refrigerator.
According to Strandness, Austin had a fascination with his father’s lighters and had been reprimanded for playing with them on more than one occasion.
When Austin’s mother Amy left the kitchen to go upstairs, Austin got the lighter and began to play with it.
Austin’s pajamas then ignited and flames quickly spread over his entire body. Upon hearing her child’s screams, Amy ran down stairs to find Austin completely engulfed in flames.
His mother grabbed a nearby blanket and wrapped up Austin to put the flames out. Austin was rushed to Regions Hospital with burns over 30 percent of his body.
Austin has since had seven skin grafts to replace the flesh on areas of his body with third degree burns, such as his arms, neck and face.
The burning pajamas left Austin with permanent disfiguring scars across his body and other complications he will have to deal with for the rest of his life, Strandness said.
Austin’s case is just one of dozens reported every year. In a 2005 report by the Consumer Product Safety Commission based on data collected from 33 burn centers across the U.S., 33 children under the age of 15 were burned when their sleepwear caught fire. The youngest was only 12 weeks old.
Under the Commission’s Standards for the Flammability of Children’s Sleepwear, fabric and garments must pass certain flammability tests in order to be legally sold in the United States. The general test uses a sample of five 3.5 inch by 10 inch sections of material cut from the fabric seams and trim of the sleepwear.
The test requires the samples to be held under a gas flame for three seconds; afterwards, the amount of the sample charred is measured. If the average char length is greater than 7.0 inches, the sleepwear must be rejected.
Austin’s attorneys are suing for a sum greater than $50,000 under Minnesota’s pleading requirement. A jury has leeway to decide those damages and can go far beyond that minimum.
According to Strandness, Austin’s case will go to court next January at the earliest.


Sources

· Civil Suit

· Plaintiff Attorney: Paul Strandness (952-594-3600)

· Consumer Product Safety Commission website

· Consumer Product Safety Commission report
(http://www.cpsc.gov/library/nbcrs05.pdf)