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Notable 2007 Jury Verdicts: Exploding water heater brings $50 million verdict

An Alabama jury awarded $50 million to the family of a man who was killed by an exploding water heater.
Richard Krantz, a 55-year-old real-estate broker in Daphne, Ala., was critically injured on July 1, 2005, when he attempted to relight a malfunctioning pilot with an electric starter button, causing gas that had collected in the area to explode.
He died four days later.
The plaintiffs’ lawyer, Joseph M. “Buddy” Brown, said the incident was caused by faulty design and a series of negligent actions and inactions that ensured the problem was not fixed.
“You had [in this case] a brand-new water heater with a 7 1/2-year-old valve that we know is defective,” he said. “This is not some beat-up old water heater.”
The plaintiffs’ team argued that the heater lacked a multi-function gas control valve with sensors that would have shut off the heater automatically if it detected vapors. They argued the defendant manufacturer, A.O. Smith Water Products Co., had patented that very device, but only included it on its more expensive heaters. They also contended the defendant should be held liable for designating a service person who was unfamiliar with its products and in directing him to install a defective valve.
Defense lawyers did not respond to calls for comment, but Brown said that they focused on one argument at trial: The gas in the garage resulted from a natural-gas leak and not from the water heater.
Brown concluded that the outcome of the trial would hinge on jurors’ response to a simple, black-and-white question: Did the gas come from the water heater or the street?
The defense lined up 17 experts to testify about natural-gas leakage and migration. Collectively, he said, they represented his biggest obstacle going into trial.
But the first two witnesses “self-destructed” according to Brown, and the defense did not call the other 15.
The jury found A.O. Smith liable and awarded $50 million, including $37.25 million in punitive damages. They apportioned $42.25 million to the Krantz family estate, $2.5 million to each of the children and $2.75 million to Krantz’s widow.
Following the verdict, A.O. Smith said it would appeal the award. The company also issued a statement indicating that “the evidence submitted by A.O. Smith at trial established clearly that the water heater performed properly and was not the source of the gas leak in the Krantz home.”
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Verdict: $50 million total
$37.5 million in punitive damages
State: Alabama
Type of case: Wrongful death
Trial: 2 1/2 weeks
Deliberations: 5 hours
Status: Defendant plans to appeal the verdict.
Case name: Krantz v. A.O. Smith Water Products Co.
Date of verdict: Oct. 18, 2007
Plaintiff’s attorney: Joseph M. “Buddy” Brown of Cunningham, Bounds, Crowder, Brown & Breedlove in Mobile, Ala.
Defense attorneys: Kenneth Anselment, Jr. of A.O. Smith Water Products Co. in Ashland City, Tenn.; Donald H. Carlson of Crivello Carlson in Milwaukee.

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