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Jury awards $29 million to Little Tikes

FARMINGTON – A St. Francois County Jury has rendered a $29 million verdict in favor of Little Tikes and against a company formerly known as Entergy System and Service Inc.

The verdict was said to be the largest verdict ever handed down in the 24th Circuit, which is made up of Ste. Genevieve, St. Francois, Washington and Madison counties. The verdict is still subject to appeal.

Newell Rubbermaid Inc. and Little Tikes Commercial Play Systems filed a petition in 2001 seeking damages against Efficient Solutions Inc., Proven Alternatives formerly known as Entergy Systems Inc., Fleet Business Credit Corp., and Cooper Industries. The trial was held before Circuit Court Judge Kenneth W. Pratte this week.

The plaintiffs alleged it was a light fixture that had been maintained by Entergy that caused a fire on Sept. 8, 1998 which destroyed a part of Little Tikes’ business in Farmington.

Tom Burcham, one of three attorneys representing Little Tikes, said they asked the jury to award $33 million in damages. The three attorneys for the defendants asked that the jury award no damages or if damages were awarded, that they award $18 million.

Burcham said this verdict vindicates the employees in that the defendant tried to contend the fire was started by reckless smoking or some other negligence on the part of Little Tikes’ employees.

He said the verdict was rendered on Thursday after the jury had heard three days of testimony. A number of expert witnesses, some from as far away as the East Coast, were called in to testify.

Witnesses for Little Tikes presented evidence that the fire was caused by a light fixture that was improperly inspected, serviced, secured and maintained by Entergy. They also alleged Cooper Lighting failed to warn users of lighting fixtures that a safety chain or a similar device was required to secure the fixture.

Two investigators with the State Fire Marshal’s Office testified that the cause of the fire was left as &#8220undetermined.”

The investigators testified they determined the fire occurred where the heaviest damage to the building was, which was where the slide racks were located.

The roof and a wall had collapsed in that area so a backhoe crew had to clear the area so investigators could go through the burned debris.

Investigator Rodger Windle of the State Fire Marshal’s Office said they found a melting blob of plastic on the floor. Underneath, they found part of a light fixture.

Windle said the light fixture, because of the way it was situated, had to have been on the floor before the plastic melted. He said the fact that it fell before the fire started and that it was in the origin of the fire was a good indicator to them that the light had something to do with the fire.

He said in that aisle, there were boxes of polymer plastic toys which were ready to be shipped. He said in his opinion, the light from the ceiling fell and started the fire.

Windle said there was no evidence that anyone had been smoking in the area or that anything else had caused the fire. He said he has not been shown any evidence to change his mind.

Windle said they were unable to determine how the light fell and since the fire marshal’s office didn’t have an electrical engineer, they left the cause as undetermined.

A woman who works for Little Tikes testified she heard a loud pop and then heard the fire alarm go off three separate times. She said after the third time, she looked up and saw smoke coming out of the ceiling.

When she was originally questioned by attorneys, the woman stated the pop was hard to describe but it didn’t sound like anything falling or breaking. During the trial, however, she said it sounded like metal hitting concrete and she believes now that it was a light falling.

The Little Tikes vice president of operations testified they entered into a contract with Entergy because the company claimed they had new technology in lighting.

She said Entergy took down the light fixtures, put their technology in the light fixtures and rehung the lights. She said the contract stated Entergy would repair or replace any defects to the lights when they were inspected by Entergy. She said she was not told the lights had defects or that they were improperly hung.

Little Tikes, formerly Iron Mountain Forge and now PlayPower, employed about 700 people at the time of the fire. Little Tikes started operations at a campground on the Black River near Lesterville in 1979 as Iron Mountain Forge. The business moved to Farmington in 1980, moving to their current location in 1984.

Newell Rubbermaid purchased the company in 1993, renaming it Little Tikes Commercial Play Systems.

The fire destroyed a new addition to the business used for rotational molding. The facility was rebuilt in 1999. In 2004, the Little Tikes was purchased by PlayPower.

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