Business News

Fires, deaths are linked to Invacare wheelchairs
09/01/02
Becky Gaylord
Plain Dealer Reporter

The world's largest maker of battery-operated wheelchairs, Invacare Corp., settled a lawsuit last month for more than $7 million after defective wiring on one of its wheelchairs sparked and caught fire, badly burning a 65-year-old quadriplegic woman.

It was the latest lawsuit the Elyria company has faced - including three others that involved deaths - linked to the chair's battery-charging system. The flaw is also the source of an ongoing recall of the wheelchairs that Invacare quietly began in April 2000.

But the company didn't begin the recall until years after reports surfaced that some of its wheelchairs were igniting, causing deaths and injuries, and it found itself in the midst of lawsuits.

In September 2000, Invacare expanded the recall, increasing from six to 16 the number of models covered and nearly doubling the number of wheelchairs included, according to the Food and Drug Administration, which regulates the devices.

The recall now covers all powered wheelchairs Invacare made from 1985 to 2000 - more than 215,000 of them.

Although Invacare sent cards to possible customers and notified many dealers of the recall, it acknowledged that it has not referred to the recall in press releases, filings to the Securities and Exchange Commission, annual reports or on its Web site.

"Many people don't know, still, about the risk. It's out there, but they should have had it on national TV," said Douglas Clark, a partner with Mesch, Clark & Rothschild of Tucson, Ariz., the law firm that settled the case last month on behalf of Betty Davis, who suffered second- and third-degree burns over 25 percent of her body.

About 39 percent of the wheelchairs made since 1993 have been corrected, said company spokeswoman Susan Elder. Invacare doesn't have similar data for wheelchairs made earlier than that, she said.

She would not comment about legal issues.

Invacare, whose sales last year topped $1 billion, has more than a quarter of the wheelchair market.

Because someone who needs an electric wheelchair is unable to get up and walk away if that machine ignites, product defects that can spark fires are particularly dangerous for those customers.

As far back as August 1993, Invacare tracked complaints about problems associated with the battery-charger wiring harness that could short circuit and which had led to smoking, sparking and fires. Those complaints described more than 30 incidents before the recall began in April 2000 and more than 30 since then. The company noted five deaths and other injuries and damage, according to some of the files maintained by the company and turned over to Davis' lawyers as part of her case.

For instance, the complaint files record John Rothermel's October 1994 death in Rhode Island: " 'Pop' sound when charger plugged in; short caused chair fire; apartment burned down."

In other cases, batteries and wheelchairs reportedly melted. And the records show that a father said one wheelchair "burnt like a blowtorch" while his son was in it.

And one fire, which started when a wheelchair was being charged, happened as recently as April, the records show.

The recall involves replacing components in the flawed charging systems. They lacked a fuse that would cost less than $5 and handle short-circuits, according to an Invacare engineer, who was questioned during trial preparations for a lawsuit over the death of Spencer Lynch. The Plain Dealer obtained the pretrial documents. Lynch, of Oklahoma, died from burns after his Invacare Power 9000 wheelchair caught fire in June 1999. The type of wheelchair he used sold for about $4,500.

Invacare engineer Ted Wakefield said "we didn't think of it," when asked whether the company had considered adding the fuse to stop the short-circuits at the time the wiring harnesses were designed.

Invacare has settled Lynch's case and two others involving deaths, in Georgia and Mississippi, brought after wheelchair users died in fires linked to the defective system.

Confidentiality agreements struck in several of the settlements cover not only the settlement amounts, but also expert witnesses, who are restricted from speaking about some aspects of the lawsuits.

One such case, the lawsuit brought by Lynch's parents, settled for more than $20 million, according to legal sources familiar with it.

Lawyer Walter Haskins, a partner with Atkinson, Haskins, Nellis, Holeman, Phipps, Brittingham & Gladd, of Tulsa, Okla., who represented Lynch's parents, declined to comment about the case, which was sealed.

"Invacare came down with a truck," picked up all of the evidence, including the charred wheelchair, Haskins said, "and hauled off."

Early last month, Invacare settled with Davis, who was burned when her wheelchair ignited after she began charging the battery. She called the telephone company operator, who traced the call and dispatched the Fire Department. Firefighters arrived about 10 minutes after Davis called. A neighbor, summoned by the operator, also tried to fight the fire with a garden hose.

Before settling the case, Invacare admitted in court to the defect, according to a transcript. On Aug. 8, Ted Borek, Arizona Superior Court judge said, "At this point, the defense admits and the plaintiff stipulates to the following facts:

'And that is, that the design of the charging circuit was defective; that the defect was unreasonably dangerous.' " The company also admitted that a fuse in the charging harness would reduce the potential for fire and that Davis' chair should have been designed with such a fuse.

By then, Invacare had notified many dealers about the recall. The company sent letters in April 2000 and September 2000 that refer to the likelihood of fires.

But Elder said there are a number of cases where "we were not able to locate the dealer, the information on the consumer."

The company also arranged for post cards about the action to be sent to lists of consumers likely to be using powered wheelchairs, such as disabled veterans. A copy of one of the cards refers to the possibility of an electrical short, but not to the risk of fire.

Inside a section on its Web site labeled product alert, Invacare lists several Medical Device Field Corrections. One that is dated March 2001 says the company "initiated a field correction involving certain Invacare power wheelchairs manufactured from 1988 through June 2000." The notice says that the battery box harness and a charger harness on some of those wheelchairs have the "remote possibility to short and cause a fire," but it doesn't say which of the models are affected.

Consumers who purchased a wheelchair within that 12-year span are encouraged to contact their "provider for details on how to have the new components installed."

When medical devices regulated by the FDA are related to serious harm or death, or could lead to serious harm or death if the problem recurred, the manufacturer must report the incidents to the agency. That is true even if the cause of the mishap hasn't been determined. A manufacturer, in deciding whether to make a report, judges whether its products were related to the injury or death. The reports that manufacturers make go into an FDA database that consumers can search.

According to Invacare's complaint files, no reports were made to the FDA for at least 18 of the incidents related to battery-wiring harnesses that it tracked, including the wheelchair fire that killed John Rothermel in 1994 and another fire that killed Arthur Wilbur in Florida in July 1995.

"I don't think there has been enough communication about it," said Mary Beth Gahan, a rehabilitation counselor for the Council for Disability Rights, in Chicago. The group provides information and counseling to consumers with disabilities and their families.

Gahan, who uses a powered wheelchair, recently traded a $9,500 Invacare Action Storm, which had been manufactured during the period covered by the recall, for a chair made by another company. She switched because she was in the market for a new wheelchair; Gahan says she hadn't known about the recall until she was asked about it. "If people had known about it, maybe those people wouldn't have died," she said.

Invacare did tell regulators about some incidents of smoking, sparking and fires with its powered wheelchairs, particularly when mishaps occurred in the late 1990s and afterward, according to the FDA database that tracks reports of the failure or malfunction of medical devices.

One entry made on July 20, 1999, says that the manufacturer "received a report alleging a wheelchair caught on fire." And, the report adds, the user "sustained burns and eventually died." That wheelchair was identified as a Power 9000.

A different report involving a Power 9000 that was made on June 30, 1999, said the wheelchair ignited while the user was in it, and he "suffered second- and third-degree burns over much of his body."

Other entries record incidents involving the model called Action Storm. For example, one wheelchair's "charger started smoking, shooting sparks and then flamed while the chair was being charged."

Another Action Storm was involved with an incident reported June 12, 2000, where the wheelchair allegedly started a fire that burned half of the family's garage.

The dealer of a different Action Storm reported that a "consumer was charging the wheelchair overnight, when consumer awoke to a burning smell and flames coming out of the bottom of the wheelchair."

A wheelchair dealer alleged in a report that a powered Invacare wheelchair caught fire while it was in the shop for the upgrade as part of the recall.

To reach this Plain Dealer reporter:
bgaylord@plaind.com, 216-999-5029

[This message was edited by seneca on Sep 02, 2002 at 02:43 AM.]