The Massachusetts Supreme Court this month heard oral arguments in a multimillion-dollar wrongful death lawsuit involving a pool slide sold by mass merchants.
The judgment was levied against Toys “R” Us, who appealed, citing excessive punitive damages.
In 2006, 29-year-old Robin Aleo slid down an inflatable pool slide in a Massachusetts backyard. The slide deflated, and Aleo hit the deck, breaking her neck. She died the next day. Since then, her family has been involved in a legal battle with Toys “R” Us, which sold the Banzai Falls In-Ground Pool Slide. In 2011, a Massachusetts jury found the retailer liable for Aleo’s death and awarded her family more than $20 million in damages, including lost income, pain and suffering, and punitive damages.
The justices won’t release their opinion for several months, but these court proceedings again focused attention on the risks of inflatable pool slides. In 2012, the Consumer Product Safety Commission recalled the specific slide used by Aleo, but many varieties of inflatable pool slides are still on the market.
Typically sold by mass marketers, not specialty pool retailers, the slides look appealing and affordable to consumers, who can buy them for $100 or less. Such slides are “tons of fun” and the “best pool toy ever” according to Amazon.com purchaser reviews, who often write that they’ve bought them for their children or grandchildren to use.
But the situation alarms safety experts. “When [the slides] are used with an inground pool, there aren’t any that I would feel comfortable with,” said Edward Pribonic, a California engineer and amusement park ride expert who has testified on behalf of Robin Aleo and her family. “These are disasters waiting to happen.”
Pool builders and retailers are similarly wary of using an inflatable slide on an inground pool. “I wouldn’t do it,” said Bill Pegoraro, owner of Sun Splash Pools and Spas in Ludlow, Mass., which builds about 20 pools a year and does not sell inflatable slides.
With so many concerns, why are the slides still on the market? One issue still undecided is whether long-standing guidelines from CPSC for pool slides apply to these inflatable versions. In its most recent court filings, Toys “R” Us argued that CPSC’s 1976 standards are intended for rigid, not inflatable, slides and shouldn’t apply in this case.
However, Benjamin R. Zimmerman, the Aleos’ attorney, asserts that they do. “The claim was that the product was dangerous and defective and killed Robin Aleo, and the jury agreed,” said Zimmerman, a principal at Boston law firm Sugarman and Sugarman. “In establishing the defect, the jury heard there is a federal standard that applies to all pool slides imported and sold in the United States regardless of their design or material.”
“From the evidence developed in our case, it would be difficult to make an inflatable pool slide that complied with applicable standards and regulations and was not dangerous and defective,” Zimmerman said. “These products are insidious because they appear bouncy and safe, but in fact can collapse with very little weight on them.”
CPSC said it is aware of the problem. “We are starting to take a broader look at some of these inflatable slides,” said Scott Wolfson, CPSC director of communications. Any action, if it happens, could take time. “The CPSC wants to do things their own way and at their own speed,” said Pribonic, noting that the Banzai slides weren’t recalled until six years after Aleo’s death.
Toys “R” Us declined comment because this is a matter of pending litigation.