A Miami state court jury awarded an eight-figure verdict against a manufacturer whose construction equipment emitted an odorless carbon monoxide that allegedly poisoned and killed an automotive expert, who left behind a wife and twins.
Pedro Echarte and Todd Michaels, partners at the Haggard Law Firm, and Ernesto Santos, a partner at Halpern, Santos & Pinkert, represented the plaintiff, the estate of Matthew Burns, against the defendant, Sunbelt Rentals Inc.
‘This Thing That Can Kill You’
Michaels said they conceded to Sunbelt’s argument that Burns was a highly trained luxury automotive expert technician with combustion experience and knew about carbon monoxide and its risks.
“They argued that they brought Burns up for training and told him to wear eyewear, earwear and to ensure there was ventilation, which they defined as you can feel air moving in the area,” Echarte said. “But they left out the most important part: This thing that can kill you and the way to protect yourself from that is you need to rent this carbon monoxide monitor, which they have.”
Joshua Alan Golembe, a partner at Butler Weihmuller Katz Craig who represented Sunbelt, did not respond to a request seeking comment.
One of the original defendants, Blastpro Manufacturing Inc., manufactured the Shot Blaster, which Sunbelt rented to Burns.
Burns operated the device, which shoots fine mental beads at a floor surface to clean and refinish it.
The Shot Blaster was powered by a combustion engine, which Burns utilized in a warehouse facility around July 2019. He died soon afterward.
The plaintiff lawyers sued, and obtained a confidential settlement with Blastpro leading up to the trial with Sunbelt.
At trial, the estate explained to jurors that carbon monoxide is tasteless and odorless, and after being emitted, it doesn’t just disappear. Because this type of equipment was designed to be operated in an indoor setting, the carbon monoxide exposure remained in the warehouse. Without the monitor nor a warning of its necessity, Burns had no way of knowing the exposure level became dangerous.
And among those who testified during the trial was the victim’s wife, Melissa, who described the impact that the loss of her husband had on her and their 4-year-old twins.
She was followed up by the children’s therapist, who described how one of the twins would put scenes together in which Superman would fight off an evil army.
And as the therapist was testifying about his treatment of one of the twins by going through family photos, Santos said he did not “put it together until that moment” when the therapist connected that in one of the photos, Burns was wearing his favorite Superman t-shirt.
“You realized that the imagery of Superman keeping the bad people away was his dad,” Santos recalled. “I had to ask the judge for a break because the enormity of the moment hit me. When you talk about a lawsuit and you talk about mistakes, you are talking about a father who was taken from his children and his wife.”
Now, in the case before Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Reemberto Diaz, the jury returned $13 million to the estate following a seven-day trial and about eight hours of deliberations.
The jury allocated nearly $3.9 million to the wife and about $4.6 million to each child, the verdict form shows. Still, the jury appropriated 32% fault to Burns, reducing the award to nearly $9 million.
Michaels said: “This case is a testament to both firms to never give up, to find out what happened here, and what went wrong, and because of those errors how that changed the life of Burn’s family.”
View the Verdict Form: