An Illinois woman whose husband died in a camper fire due to a faulty refrigerator has settled a lawsuit for $7 million, and her attorney suspects that as many as 12,000 recreational vehicles have similar refrigerators which could cause fires.
The News-Democrat, Belleville, Ill., reported that Brenda Rutz and her husband, Randall, were sleeping in their camper on Jan. 1, 2005, in Litchfield when it caught fire. The cause was traced to cracked tubing in the camper’s Norcold refrigerator, which resulted in it leaking flammable hydrogen.
Randall Rutz, 46 at the time, died of smoke inhalation and third-degree burns to more than 70% of his body. Brenda Rutz, 42 at the time, suffered second- and third-degree burns as well as injuries to her lungs and vocal cord. She has permanent scarring and still has a tracheotomy in place, according to her attorney, Troy Walton of The Rex Carr Law Firm in East St. Louis, Mo.
Brenda Rutz reached a final settlement in her lawsuit on June 30. Apache Village, a camper dealership in Hazelwood, Mo., paid $1.5 million, according to the newspaper, while Norcold and its insurer paid $5.5 million.
Norcold officials, contacted in mid-July, could not confirm the total dollar amount of the settlement.
The News-Democrat reported that Walton was seeking punitive damages against Norcold. He alleged that Norcold knew of the potential fire hazard as early as 1999 and, in 2000, the company notified federal officials that it would be recalling more than 40,000 refrigerators.
“We sincerely regret the incident and we are sympathetic to the family,” Norcold’s senior management noted in a July 17 statement to RVBUSINESS.com. “We take product safety and product quality very seriously.”
The company, a subsidiary of Ann Arbor, Mich.-based Thetford Corp., said it initiated an “aggressive” recall campaign in 2001 that had identified and repaired over 70% of the units.
“We first became aware of the problem when we saw an unusually high number of cooling-unit failures coming back from the field and a few minor incidents reported,” the statement read. “Through analysis we were able to determine the defect occurred as a result of an engineering change made to the cooling unit. We have worked aggressively to identify and repair free-of-charge the units in question, conducting several major advertising campaigns in trade and consumer publications, issuing multiple recall-notification letters and dealer advisories and providing consumer incentives.
“In addition,” the company said, “Norcold has sent its own personnel to events, which are known to attract a large number of recreational vehicles to perform a door-to-door search for affected units. Our efforts have gone well beyond safety-related recall campaigns of this type, including offering incentives to get the refrigerators replaced and advertising in trade journals and camping magazines.”
Meanwhile, Norcold spokesman Larry Weis, contacted by the Belleville newspaper, confirmed that about 12,000 refrigerators remain to be replaced. He maintained that the rate of replacement, about 70%, is high for a recall. In addition, he said, about a thousand owners contacted by Norcold had not bothered to have their refrigerators replaced. Also, Weis added, some of the campers are likely no longer in use.
Walton said he’s not aware of any other injuries or fatalities due to Norcold refrigerator fires, although the Rutz’s attorney claims there were a number of other fires linked to the faulty Norcold installations that had resulted in property damage.