Recently, Hall & Collins Injury Law, LLC achieved a $6.15 million settlement for the estate of a woman who died as a result of a faulty freezer safety mechanism. What follows is an account of the deceased’s experience, what happened, and how we helped her estate achieve compensation for her pre-death suffering.
Hotel Worker Trapped Inside Freezer Due to Faulty Safety Release
Our client, Mrs. Patricia Mashburn, was 62 years old and had worked as a cafeteria assistant for 30 years at a large Atlanta hotel. She worked a late shift, so her husband went to bed before she was expected home. When he awoke the next morning, however, he realized his wife was not home. He immediately called the hotel. The hotel security checked her timecard and saw that she never clocked out the night before. They began searching surveillance videos and last saw her walking towards the “bread freezer” in the back, which was 15 degrees below zero (Fahrenheit).
When hotel security opened the freezer door, they found a horrific scene. Mrs. Mashburn was deceased, and her body was frozen solid. Her knuckles were beaten bloody, and blood splatter marks dotted the door around the inside release handle. How could this have happened?
The freezer door was a “mechanical latch” design that would automatically close and “latch” shut, meaning it could not be opened from the inside without using an inside release button. The inside release button is designed to open the freezer door from the inside of the freezer, allowing a user to safely exit. The freezer door was equipped with a Kason “SafeGuard” inside release.
Why Couldn’t Mrs. Mashburn Open the Freezer Door?
The hotel propped the freezer door open and called the police and the medical examiner to the scene. After taking many photos and inspecting the freezer, the medical examiner closed the freezer door to test the inside release. It worked flawlessly, opening the door each time. Based on this test, the medical examiner ruled that Mrs. Mashburn had a heart attack and died of natural causes. The hotel padlocked the freezer so no one could enter it but left it running.
A few days later, OSHA came to the hotel to investigate. Shockingly, when the OSHA investigator went inside the freezer, the inside release failed to open the freezer door, trapping the investigator inside. Hotel security heard her banging on the door and let her out.
When the medical examiner learned of the entrapment of the OSHA investigator, she changed the cause of death to “undetermined.” She also returned to the scene and took samples of the red material on the freezer door to perform DNA testing to confirm it was Mrs. Mashburn’s blood. However, because no one had been charged with a crime, the crime lab would not conduct the testing. Thankfully, the medical examiner preserved the samples.
The Wrong Attorneys for the Job
Mr. Mashburn originally hired other attorneys. These attorneys tried unsuccessfully to sue Mrs. Mashburn’s employer, the hotel (which you can’t do under Georgia law.) Even worse, these attorneys never hired an expert to inspect the inside release or the freezer and never made any claim against the manufacturer of the inside release. After the court dismissed their inappropriate lawsuit, the hotel removed the entire freezer and discarded it. Mr. Mashburn’s attorneys dropped him.
The Right Attorneys for the Job
When I got the case, the hotel had already discarded the freezer. All that remained were a few photographs taken by the medical examiner. We had no product and no way to test the inside release. Even worse, the prior attorneys had allowed the statute of limitations to expire on Mrs. Mashburn’s wrongful death claim. All that remained was a claim for the pre-death suffering that belonged to her estate. This claim was still alive because the statute of limitations was tolled until the probate court appointed Mr. Mashburn as administrator. To say things appeared bleak is a huge understatement.
Many Major Obstacles to Overcome
The first obstacle was to convince the medical examiner that the cause of death was due to entrapment inside the freezer. We needed to show that the red substance on the inside of the door was Mrs. Mashburn’s blood from banging her knuckles on the door.
The crime lab would not test the blood samples, so we hired an independent DNA testing facility to perform the tests. It showed a 100% match to Mrs. Mashburn’s DNA. Our investigation also uncovered a prior incident where another hotel employee was trapped inside the same freezer a few months before Mrs. Mashburn. Fortunately, someone heard her banging and let her out. When Mr. Hall presented these facts to the medical examiner, she officially changed the cause of death to “hypothermia due to entrapment.”
The second major obstacle was the inside release, and the freezer no longer existed. Without the release, it was difficult to prove that the release was, in fact, manufactured by Kason Industries. The only “proof” we had were the few photographs snapped by the medical examiner on the day of the incident. Kason initially denied that they manufactured the inside release on the freezer door, pointing to foreign companies who produce “knock offs” of Kason components. Fortunately, through cross-examination of Kason’s corporate witness, we forced Kason to admit that the release shown in the photos was almost certainly a Kason SafeGuard Release.
The third major obstacle was the lack of ability to test the inside release (because it no longer existed) to show how or why it was failing. Further, Mr. Mashburn’s prior lawyers failed to notify Kason Industries of the claim before the hotel discarded the freezer, depriving Kason of the opportunity to inspect or test the release.
The fourth major obstacle was the prior attorneys allowing the statute of limitations to expire on the wrongful death claim. So, the only claim we had left was the estate’s claim for pre-death pain and suffering.
The fifth major obstacle was the 10-year “statute of repose” on products liability cases. Under this rule, a manufacturer of a product (like Kason Industries) is protected from liability if the product is over 10 years old. However, the statute of repose does not apply to “failure to warn” claims. So, we filed suit against Kason Industries on behalf of the estate for the pre-death suffering caused by Kason’s failure to warn users of the freezer (like Mrs. Mashburn’s) that the inside release may fail.
Failure to Warn Claim Based on Kason’s SafeGuard Sign
We also had photos of the Kason SafeGuard Sign posted on the inside of the freezer door. Kason’s sign assures users that “YOU CANNOT BE LOCKED IN.” Thus, we made the claim that not only did Kason fail to warn users like Mrs. Mashburn that the inside release may fail, Kason assured them it would not fail. Kason’s written assurances that the release would “always operate to open the door” made our case.
We also found prior claims against Kason in the 1990s made by others who were trapped inside freezers equipped with a Kason SafeGuard Release. As a result of these prior claims, Kason removed the assurances from its sign and replaced them with an actual warning that the inside release may fail in harsh conditions (like a 15 degree below zero freezer.) Amazingly, Kason Industries did NOTHING to recall the old signs with the defective language, which is why this freezer still had the 30-year-old sign posted inside the freezer door.
Proving the Release Failed Due to Ice Buildup
Because the freezer and the inside release had been discarded, we had to rely exclusively on circumstantial evidence to prove our claim that the inside release failed due to ice buildup. We found the repairman who was called to the freezer after the prior incident where the release failed to work for another hotel employee. The repairman confirmed that he found ice buildup around the inside release. After he cleared the ice buildup, the release worked.
The prior failure due to ice buildup also explained why the inside release worked when the medical examiner tested it on the day of our incident. The freezer door was propped open into a heated hallway for several hours during the initial investigation, allowing any ice buildup around the inside release mechanism to melt. So, when the medical examiner closed the freezer door and tested it, it worked because the ice had melted away.
Further, ice buildup would explain why the inside release failed again when the OSHA investigator returned a few days after our incident. The hotel had padlocked the freezer but left it running so it was still 15 degrees below zero inside the freezer. This gave time for ice to reform around the inside release before the OSHA investigator performed her testing.
Kason Industries vehemently denied liability and blamed the hotel and the freezer assembly company. Finally, about two weeks before our scheduled jury trial, Kason Industries came to the settlement table. Ultimately, we obtained over $6.15 million for all the claims we presented.