Genie Wins Major Lawsuit: The Inside Story

© 2000 Door & Access Systems
Publish Date: Fall 2000
Author: Tom Wadsworth
Pages 18-19

Genie Wins Major Lawsuit
The Inside Story

On April 7, 2000, a San Francisco jury concluded that a Genie garage door opener wasn't to blame for severe injuries suffered by a San Francisco firefighter who was trapped in a burning garage.

The decision ended several years of litigation that sought millions of dollars from the Genie Company, a subsidiary of Overhead Door Corporation. The verdict has been viewed as a significant victory for the garage door opener industry.

The incident occurred on March 9, 1995, when several firefighters entered a burning home through the garage. When the commanding officer ordered a retreat, they tried to exit through the garage, which was the only exit. However, they found that the one-piece, two-car garage door had closed and could not be opened. The firefighters, trapped in the garage, appealed for help but they could not be heard because of high winds and a driving rain.

The lieutenant in charge of the crew was killed in the garage. The plaintiff, a female, was left blind, brain damaged, and severely burned. She was pulled from the garage when rescuers on the outside finally punched a hole in the door.

The injured firefighter spent three months in a coma. She sued Genie for $6.5 million for lost pay and medical bills and many millions more in additional damages for pain and suffering.

For the inside details on this pivotal trial, we interviewed Karen Austin, Genie’s assistant general counsel, who worked closely with the San Francisco legal team that fought and won the case.

Karen, why did the firefighter sue Genie?

The firefighter’s attorney contended that the opener failed to open the door when the door closed on the fire hose, which was under the left side of the door. The hose, which they contended was fully charged at the time, would have been about two inches thick and hard as a rock. If that were true, the opener theoretically should have reversed when the door hit the hose. Their attorney also claimed that the opener’s failure to work in intense heat was due to a faulty design.

In short, how did you respond to these charges?

Genie’s response was that the hose was not fully charged at the time the door closed. Consequently, the hose was shorter than two inches high. The hose was also positioned off to the left where door flex can affect the reversing capabilities. These two factors, the height and position of the hose, then could have contributed to the door not reversing.

What made the door close behind the firefighters?

No one knows exactly why the opener closed the door. It may have closed when water from hose spray hit the button. Temperatures in the garage reached 500-1000 degrees, and that may have had some impact. The judge called it a freak accident.

What did the jury decide?

The jury deliberated for two days before determining that Genie was negligent in some aspects of manufacturing and testing the opener, but they also concluded that the negligence was not a cause of the injuries. The final jury vote was 10-2 to clear the company of responsibility for the injuries.

It seems that the firefighter had every reason to get a sympathy vote in this trial. How did you deal with that?

This is always the most difficult part of a case like this. We were fortunate to have a jury that took its responsibility very seriously and was able to keep sympathy out of its decision on liability. Our lawyers presented a rational and thorough defense, in which we also felt a need to demonstrate firefighter errors. It was clear from the evidence that firefighters failed to protect their only exit and made errors in connecting their water supply. We also successfully argued that improper use of safety equipment, such as air packs, caused the plaintiff’s injuries, not the Genie product.

From your perspective as a lawyer, what made this trial such a significant one for you?

The potentially high dollar amount of an adverse verdict, of course, made the trial incredibly important. It meant a lot to Genie to protect our reputation as a quality company with safe products. Besides that, it was my most expensive trial. Our defense costs were high because of the technical evidence that had to be developed and presented and because the case has been going on for four years. This case also carried a high profile. Most lawyers’ cases are not that well known, but this one generated a lot of media attention.

You have participated in the DASMA mock trial that shows dealers how these lawsuits can have a large impact on their business. In the San Francisco trial, what were some key lessons for dealers?

Since the homeowner had installed the Genie opener himself, no dealer was involved in this case. However, the case emphasizes the importance of proper testing and servicing of garage door openers and proper operation of all safety devices. It’s so important for dealers to investigate and document every case of failure-to-reverse.

The case should teach us that expensive lawsuits can happen even when your product operates in a normal way. It also demonstrates how your reputation can be severely attacked. Genie is a very responsible company; that’s why we’re in DASMA. But their attorneys tried to make us look like we couldn’t care less, and that this kind of accident happens a lot.

Even though the jury vindicated Genie and said the opener was not a cause of the injuries, they did say Genie was negligent in some aspects of manufacturing and testing the opener. How so?

This Genie opener was installed on a one-piece door, and that created some challenges with respect to door flex and the mechanical reversing device. The jury may have believed some of plaintiff’s criticisms of how our design works with a one-piece door. However, the ultimate responsibility for the injuries to plaintiff was placed on the fire department.

You have called this verdict a “big win” for the industry. What makes this verdict so significant for our industry?

Whenever one of our companies is successful in a high-profile case such as this, it is significant for our industry. None of us needed to have a garage door opener blamed for killing or injuring firefighters. Genie took a very aggressive approach to the defense of this case, and it paid off.