The highest court in Massachusetts has upheld a $20.6 million jury award for the family of a woman who died after hitting her head on a concrete pool deck when an inflatable slide partially collapsed. The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts ruled that there was enough evidence to support the jury’s findings and that the jury’s award of $18 million in punitive damages did not exceed constitutional limits.
In 2006, while visiting relatives, twenty-nine year old Robin Aleo attempted to use an inflatable swimming pool slide that had been imported and sold by Toys R Us. She slid down head first; when she reached the bottom of the slide, it collapsed, and her head struck the concrete deck of the swimming pool through the fabric of the slide. Robin’s upper two cervical vertebrae fractured, resulting in quadriplegia. She died the following day after her family, in accordance with her wishes, decided to withdraw life support.
Michael Aleo, Robin’s widower, pursued a lawsuit against Toys R Us. Following trial, the jury found Toys R Us liable for negligence, breach of warranty, and wrongful death, awarding compensatory damages in the amount of $2,640,000. The jury also found Toys R Us grossly negligent and awarded punitive damages in the amount of $18 million. Toys R Us appealed and the state’s highest court recently affirmed the judgment.
The case involves a product made in China called “Banzai Falls In–Ground Pool Slide.” The slide is made of a tent-like fabric with a rubber-coated sliding surface and is sold with an electric fan used to inflate it. The slide is intended to be installed adjacent to an in-ground swimming pool, so that a person using the slide may descend the slide ramp into the pool.
Before importing the slide into the United States, Toys R Us retained an independent testing laboratory to evaluate it. However, there was no indication that the slide was ever tested for compliance with 16 C.F.R. § 1207 (1978), a Federal safety standard applicable to all swimming pool slides “regardless of the materials of manufacture or structural characteristics of the slides.” The regulation requires that all pool slides be capable of supporting three hundred fifty pounds, and that they be tested for head-first sliding.
The court of appeals noted that a violation of an applicable regulation is “evidence of negligence on the part of a violator as to all consequences that the statute, ordinance, or regulation was intended to prevent.” A copy of § 1207 was entered in evidence. The court of appeals noted that, by its express terms, § 1207 applies to all swimming pool slides “regardless of the materials of manufacture or structural characteristics of the slides.” Further, the regulation states that it was promulgated to “reduce or eliminate the unreasonable risks of death or injury associated with swimming pool slides,” including “quadriplegia and paraplegia resulting from users (primarily adults using the swimming pool slide for the first time) sliding down the slide in a head first position and striking the bottom of the pool.” 16 C.F.R. § 1207.
One of the plaintiff’s expert witnesses testified that the slide failed to comply with the Federal standard and that this failure caused Robin’s death, while another testified that the slide was defective because it did not comply with the requirements of the standards. Finally, the judge instructed the jury, without objection, that it was “deemed … admitted that the slide was not tested or certified under [§ 1207] prior to being imported and sold.” The court of appeals concluded that the evidence was sufficient to support a finding that Toys R Us violated § 1207 and, thus, was sufficient to support the judgment against the company.
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