FairWarining Reports

Burn Cases Turn Up the Heat on Fireplace Makers

Signe Whelan is recovering from third-degree hand burns that she suffered when she was 11 months old.

Makers of gas fireplaces are being buffeted by lawsuits and the threat of federal regulation amid heightened concerns about the risk of burns from the glass fronts of the appliances, which can get hot enough to melt skin.

The new pressure stems from cases of children suffering third-degree burns from touching or stumbling into the glass panes. They are allowed by a voluntary industry standard to reach temperatures of up to 500 degrees.

As FairWarning reported in January, more than 2,000 children ages five and under suffered burn injuries from fireplace glass from 1999 to 2009, according to a federal estimate.

Among recent developments:

–The Consumer Product Safety Commission, which up to now has allowed the industry to police itself, this week took an initial step that could lead to government rules. Commissioners voted 5-0 on Wednesday to request public comments on two petitions—one proposing mandatory screens or other safeguards to prevent contact with fireplace glass, and the other to require use of a warning device to alert parents when the glass is dangerously hot.

–On Thursday, a federal judge in Oakland, Calif., approved a class action settlement requiring Lennox International, a top fireplace maker, to offer to send protective screens to more than 500,000 owners of its Lennox and Superior brand gas fireplaces. The company, which did not admit liability, also agreed to pay $4.93 million in fees and expenses to three law firms that filed the case.

The industry “is very serious about making sure that this issue becomes a non-issue” by finding a way to prevent burns, said Allan Cagnoli, director of government affairs for the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Assn., an industry trade group.

While the Lennox settlement resolves the biggest case against the industry, another class action is just getting started. Filed in May by the same lawyers who brought the Lennox suit, it names three companies involved in the manufacture and distribution of Valor brand gas fireplaces: BDR Thermea of the Netherlands; British subsidiary Baxi Group; and Miles Industries Ltd. of North Vancouver, British Columbia.

A story by KGO-TV San Francisco based on FairWarning’s report.

The suit filed in federal court in Oakland contends that owners of Valor fireplaces have suffered economic loss because they will need to install safeguards on the fireplaces to operate them safely.

This story also published by:
KGO-TV (ABC affiliate in San Francisco)

The fireplaces “are designed so that their glass front, installed in homes at a height accessible even to small children and infants, can…reach temperatures well in excess of that necessary to cause third-degree burns even from momentary contact with the super-heated glass,” the lawsuit states.

The suit identifies Sean Whelan of San Francisco as class representative. His daughter suffered severe burns from a Valor gas fireplace, according to a separate personal injury claim filed last month.

Whelan, a 46-year-old real estate developer, told FairWarning that he purchased 14 of the Valor fireplaces to install in new housing units, including one at his own home. Last July, he said, his daughter Signe, then 11 months old, sustained third-degree burns to both hands after touching the unprotected glass.

The flame was so low that it was not noticeable, Whelan said, yet Signe “needed the help of my wife to remove her from the glass as her hands had melted onto the glass.”

Since then, Signe has had two surgeries, including skin grafts, and will probably need a third operation, Whelan said. Now 19 months old, she still wears compression gloves as part of her treatment. Changing the gloves every few days “is a pretty traumatic experience for Signe,” Whelan said. “It’s 10 minutes of her screaming and yelling.”

Signe Whelan after surgery to treat third-degree burns. Skin was grafted from her thigh onto both hands.

Martin Miles, product director for Miles Industries, said the lawsuits are a first for his company. “We’ve never had a complaint like this in our 30 years of selling gas fireplaces,” he said. “I don’t think it is meritorious.” Officials with BDR and Baxi could not be reached.

Sometimes wracked by guilt and facing medical bills in the six figures, parents of burned children say they had no idea the glass could get dangerously hot.

One such parent is Fred Stephens, whose infant daughter also suffered third-degree hand burns at a resort hotel in the Wisconsin Dells during a family vacation last September.

Lila Stephens, then 11 months old, was burned on the unprotected glass of the fireplace in the family’s room at the Kalahari Resort, Stephens told FairWarning. He said she had skin grafted from her abdomen to both hands, and is making a good recovery.

Stephens, a probation officer from Little Canada, Minn., said he personally was “just devastated” by the accident, “and, I think, like any parent , horribly guilty that I allowed it to happen.” At the same time, he said, having a “giant piece of glass at floor level [that] is allowed to get as hot as your oven on broil…is very upsetting.”

In January, the family filed a lawsuit in state court in Madison, Wisc., naming Kalahari and the companies that produced and installed the fireplace. All have denied responsibility.

The manufacturer was Hearth & Home Technologies, an industry leader and the only major company that boasts of providing a permanently attached mesh safety screen with all of its gas fireplaces. But for reasons that are unclear, there was no screen in this case, according to Stephens. A spokeswoman for Hearth & Home said she could not discuss a pending case.

Though many gas fireplaces have been mainly decorative, the modern versions installed in millions of homes are designed to be energy efficient and serve as heating appliances. Fearing a loss of aesthetic appeal, most manufacturers have declined to include protective screens as a standard feature. And because a fireplace is an expensive, discretionary purchase, the companies have been reluctant to stress the burn risk to avoid losing sales.

A working group of industry representatives is considering recommending revisions to the existing voluntary standard. Changes could include requiring screens or tougher warnings, or both. The members “are committed to arriving at a solution,” said Greg Orloff, director of energy for CSA Standards, a Cleveland-based group that coordinates the standards process. “No one wants to see anyone injured on any product.”

The fireplace standard was certified in 1998 by the influential American National Standards Institute, and has been revised a few times since. Under ANSI rules, the process must be open to a diverse range of interests, including consumer representatives. But as a practical matter, few but those with a financial stake—such as fireplace makers and installers and gas utilities—have the expertise and money to participate.

In 2009, the standards committee approved an amped-up warning depicting a hand near flames and the words: “Hot Glass Will Cause Burns.” But the warning usually appears in owners manuals that few consumers read and many never see. That’s because the buyer may be a building contractor, a public establishment, or the original homeowner rather than the second owner or renter who lives there now.

Wednesday’s vote by the Consumer Product Safety Commission followed a letter to its chairman, Inez Tenenbaum, from Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., calling for action and quoting at length from a January report by FairWarning that appeared in a number of news outlets.

Requesting comments on the two petitions is only a first step in a laborious rule-making process that could be abandoned if the commission decides that the industry is taking effective action.

One of the petitions, calling for mandatory safety screens, was filed by Carol Pollack-Nelson, a safety consultant and former member of the commission staff.

“While it is common knowledge that the interior of the fireplace gets hot,” she wrote, “the average consumer has no reason to suspect that the glass front of a gas fireplace presents an acute and severe burn hazard.”

The other petition was submitted by William S. Lerner, a New York inventor. He asked the commission to require a high temperature warning system, such as the one he has developed, that would project an alert on the front of the fireplace “that will remain visible from the time the fireplace is lit until the glass is cool enough to touch safely.”

Laurie Udesky contributed to this report.

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About the author

Myron Levin is editor of FairWarning.

15 comments to “Burn Cases Turn Up the Heat on Fireplace Makers”

  1. Allan Crawford

    These gas fireplaces have been in use in the UK and other countries for many years, and other than accidental incidents of somebody falling against a fire, children do not get burnt.

    Just what is the problem with the amazing lack of common sense in the USA ? This is the country that pulled the world through WWII with it’s ingenuity, and yet since this time, it has been a downward spiral of producing generations that lack the ‘common sense gene’.

    A current case in CT, has a court deliberating on whether horses are a inherently vicious species – as yet again, an inadequately supervised child was bitten by a horse. Both the parents and courts should be examining where their priorities lie.

    The American Dream has become one of ‘get rich quick – sue somebody’.

    This is facilitated by a legal profession that benefits from taking a large percentage of any awards they win, and a system where each party to a case must bear their own costs, so it becomes cheaper to give in and pay out ‘blood money’, than pursue a path of seeking common sense and ensuring there is a responsibility for ones’ own actions, or in-action.

    Elsewhere, if you bring a ‘frivolous’ case and loose, you must bear the defendant’s costs, and this simple concept greatly filters out such cases from cluttering up the courts.

    Perhaps the courts should be more focused on the child rearing skills of this apparently large group of parents who seem to have failed to protect their off-spring, and now seek compensation from others to assuage their guilt ? Child endangerment charges?

  2. Peter Gross

    Thousands of 6-18 month old kids over many years have been and continue to be severely burned. Parents either become inattentive when their children reach 6 months or perhaps there is another answer. Reasonable people make the assumption that like the glass front range, the glass front gas appliance has insulation value and is completely unaware that the glass is designed to reach 500+ degrees! without a manufacturer supplied barrier. In fact, in some cases the appliance is on but there is no perceptible flame and yet the glass reaches temperatures to cause 3rd degree burns (150 degrees is enough for a 3rd degree burn). In the case of Miles Industries of Vancouver, they were provided photos and written correspondence by Dr Verchere in 2005 yet did nothing to improve the safety of their units. In fact, when asked why they do not disclose the fact that the units reach 500 degrees to consumers the answer under oath was that parents would not purchase the units. If the manufactures were to simply provide full disclosure (and not conceal) to the consumer and provide mandatory protective barriers, thousands of children would not receive 3rd degree burns.

  3. Marilyn Krygier

    When we recently bought our new high efficiency fireplace we knew it would be partially used to provide auxiliary heat for our house. That means it blows out heat and the fireplace gets hot. We had a choice and we purchased (extra cost) the screen – which adds beauty to the overall appearance. The screen provides some protection as long as you don’t push against it. If I had a toddler in my house I would not put on the fireplace during their waking hours. Even though my middle daughter was autistic, when she was young it was important that she learned to stay away from the fireplace, hot stoves, etc. This was my husband’s and my responsibility. It appears that the litigation lawyers just stand on the sideliine waiting for something to fall into their lap. Almost everything has the potential to be dangerous for children. How have we managed to have 6 billion people in this world survive all of the pitfalls. Litigation costs everyone in increased insurance, increased cost of products, restrictions on what you can use and what you can do. Where does it stop?

  4. Bob Neumann

    These parents should be hit in the face… Where were you? Not paying attention to your child… So sue someone else for your negligence? You are pathetic. FIRE HOT retards learn it and move on. What’s next? We gonna sue the stove companies? You should be charged with child neglect!!

  5. AJP

    FIREPLACE. FIRE = HOT How simple is that?

  6. criag nikitas

    Some of the previous commenters are incredibly harsh, judgemental, and thoughtless. It’s not unthinkable that people expect potentially dangerous household appliances to be made safe for their families to be around.
    I have a glass door on my oven – it gets to 500 degrees inside, and the front of the closed door is barely room temperature. People might reasonably expect the same from a glass fireplace door.
    Anyone who has raised small children knows that, no matter how diligent and watchful you are, there will be times around your house when you can’t prevent an active child from slipping by you once in a while. This is why the law requires fences around swimming pools, and closely-spaced ballusters on stair railings, and other protections for children in the home.
    I hope no one, not even the insensitive critics of these poor families, has to endure a horrific accident to their children like these folks have suffered.

  7. steve

    Sanity Check:

    Any hazard which is not readily detectable needs a corrective action to guard: fireplace glass which is hot (even when the flame is off/low) or hot coffee in a Styrofoam cup (temperature cannot be felt from touching the outer surface).

    My heart goes out to these families and children.

    I forward maybe one email per 2-3 years to family members as “public service”. This article will be one of them.

    Please pass the word. This is no normal hazard which is plainly visible, which is why it warrants especially strong corrective action on all fronts.

  8. Scott

    Here’s my issue –
    “The company, which did not admit liability, also agreed to pay $4.93 million in fees and expenses to three law firms that filed the case.” … the consumers get a free screen.
    Yeah, thank god for the lawyers for protecting us. I’m certain that was their motivation!

  9. Dana

    To all of you who think that supervision prevents these burns – what are your thoughts about the fact that these units remain hot enough to cause third degree burns after they have been turned off for an entire 30 minutes? What should be done in the case should one parent have the fireplace on and then leave and the other parent come home with the child? What about accidental falls? Someone spills their coffee at McDonald’s and gets burned and now there are warnings on coffee cups. Yet, we have appliances that reach 500 degrees in the middle of a living area and there are no warnings? The manual is almost always with the installer of the unit – how many people have a relationship with the person that installed your fireplace? These cases are analogous to the case where the young girl sat on a pool drain and was eviscerated – a simple $2 cover would have prevented her horrible death.

  10. FSS

    Just about everyone I’ve emailed about this or have talked to, literally hundreds of people directly or indirectly, had no idea that the glass front got so hot and posed such an extreme danger to children.

    You’re just blaming the victims just like people did some years ago before the federal government required the pharmaceutical industry to install tamper resistant caps/tops on medicine bottles in order to prevent injuries to children. I suppose you think tamper resistant caps on pill bottles are ridiculous too. Well, the pharm industry fought that battle, blamed parents just like you in order to save a few bucks. Luckily, they lost.

    What’s really shocking here is that the gas fireplace appliance industry could very easily spend a few dollars per appliance to install a screen in front of the glass to prevent skin to glass contact. But most refuse to do this because firstly, it would cost them money and, secondly, it might interfere with the important aesthetics of the appliance.

    Shame on you folks for blaming victims!

  11. C. Timberlake

    The Real Estate Developer Daddy purchased 14 units but didn’t know enough about them to know the “glass” gets hot? Nor did have any of the 14 owner’s manuals in English? Come on. No One Likes the Taste of Crow but these people are beyond belief!
    Did he know the manufacturers have web-sites with videos of how to operate the fires? Guess Not.
    Did he know he could download another manual in English?
    Guess Not.
    Did he install the wall hanging bracket for the remote control, for just the purpose of keeping it out of ready reach of children?
    Guess Not.
    Do he or the mommy know how to operate the fireplace? If they did, they would know that you don’t leave the pilot light on. My valor ( like all of them ) has electronic ignition which when you hit TWO buttons on the remote, lights the pilot and turns the unit on. The kids must be far more intelligent than the parents to have lit the pilot and then turned it ALL the way down.
    Fair Warning is a good term, but these parents had more than enough information at their easy and ready disposal. They simply chose not to educate themselves. Bet they didn’t have any diffiuculty locating the manufacturer to file suit though!
    Shame, Shame, Shame!

  12. D. Kulakowsky

    It’s unfortunate that accidents like this happen, all because COMMON SENSE DOESN’T! First of all…..HOW does an 11 month old child get that close to a gas fireplace, on or off? Anyone with an ounce of brains should know, that anything that produces any form of flame or fire IS GOING TO BE HOT!! However, I do wish this precious little girl a speedy recovery and……I do hope they threw away the plastic wrap that the fireplace came in!

  13. dan w reid


  14. Martin Schweighardt

    It surprises me that these parents would leave their children unattended around a gas fireplace. One gentleman in the article mentioned that he was surprised it got as hot as an oven on broil. Really? It surprised you that a fire is hot? That’s something I was taught at a very young age, and if there was a fire around, I can guarantee that my parents would be supervising me.

  15. Mike Dorsey

    There are manufacturers, like my company Diamond W Products, based in Albany, NY, that specifically make Gas Fireplace Safety screens that will fit any manufacturers gas fireplace that does not have a safety screen installed on it to protect children from touching the hot glass. Please visit our website to see our decorative safety screens.

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