Family Sues Maker Of Robe That Caught Fire, Killing Woman

Posted October 29, 2009 By Dave Altimari, The Hartford Courant   Atwilda Brown died trying to pour herself a cup of hot chocolate. As the 80-year-old woman reached across the electric stove to grab a teapot full of hot water in her East Windsor kitchen on a Saturday night in February 2005, the sleeve of her chenille robe brushed against the burner and caught fire.   She ran to her bedroom furiously trying to put out the flames engulfing her robe as her disabled husband looked on. But by the time she threw the robe to the floor it was too late. More than 35 percent of her arms and back were burned and she died a few weeks later after being transferred to the Bridgeport Burn Center.   Brown is one of at least nine people across the country to die of burns suffered when their robes, sold by the Blair Corp. of Warren, Pa., caught fire, according to federal officials.   Brown’s daughter filed a wrongful death lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Hartford this week, blaming the company for making robes made of flammable material from Pakistan without doing the proper testing, and designing a garment that turned into a fire trap when ignited.   Meanwhile, the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission, which already has recalled Blair’s chenille full-length robes like the one Brown was wearing, expanded the recall late last week to include any chenille tops and jackets made by the same Pakistani manufacturer and sold by Blair. In all, more than 300,000 garments have now been recalled.   “This robe is highly flammable, flames travel quickly up the robe,” CPSC spokesman Scott Wolfson said last week. “It is a deadly risk to women.”   Blair Corp. refused comment on the lawsuit.   Atwilda Brown’s robe, with a matching pair of slippers, arrived in late January 2005 and was the latest in a long line of garments she had purchased from Blair, a company known to market clothing to older women.   She stayed home the night of the fire to care for her husband rather than go to their daughter Sharon’s 60th birthday party in Beacon Falls.       “For years I carried around this guilt because we didn’t have the party closer to where my mother lived,” Sharon Davis said in an interview Wednesday.   The fire puzzled the family from the beginning.   “We never could figure out what happened,” Davis said. “It was an electric stove and my mother was a vibrant woman who could take care of herself.”   It wasn’t until four years later that Davis got a clue to what happened — courtesy of the Blair Corp. The company sent a recall letter, dated in April of this year, to Atwilda Brown, warning her that the robe she bought in January 2005 was highly flammable.   “I was so angry to learn what had really happened and to discover that it really shouldn’t have happened,” Davis said. “You trust when you buy a piece of clothing from someplace that it is safe. Unfortunately, my mother ordered the wrong item from Blair’s and she died because of it.”   There have been two other Blair recalls of chenille products since that one in April. Glastonbury attorney Bruce Raymond of Raymond and Bennett, who is representing Davis, said that number of recalls strung together so quickly, particularly for clothing, is highly unusual.   Raymond said that not only is the material highly flammable, which he said the company already knew, but also the design of the robe was faulty.   “They picked one of the most flammable materials, there was lax quality control on all these garments being tested as required, they had wide cuffs which easily could catch on fire and there were seven buttons down the front that needed to be unbuttoned before a person could take it off over their heads,” Raymond said.   The lawsuit seeks $30 million. A representative of a New York public relations firm hired by Blair Corp. to represent it during the recall said Wednesday that the company would not comment on the Connecticut lawsuit.   Following the latest recall announcement, Blair CEO Shelley Nandkeolyar issued a statement: “We strongly encourage anyone still in possession of a recalled robe to call our consumer hot line at (877) 392-7095 and return it immediately. In addition to our outreach to get these robes out of the hands of consumers, we are redoubling our efforts to ensure the products we sell are safe.”   Davis said she hopes the lawsuit also will warn others.   “No amount of money can ever bring back the loved ones that people have lost but it is the only recourse we have,” Davis said. “Our absolute goal is awareness. We don’t know how many people may not be aware that these clothes are dangerous and that there is a real problem here.”

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