Toy maker, dealer sued in baby's choking death Parents' lawsuit seeks $15 million

June 08, 1993|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,Staff Writer

The parents of a 2-month-old girl who died when she choked on a pom-pom from her teddy bear sued the toy maker and the dealer who sold it for $15 million yesterday in Anne Arundel County Circuit Court.

Colleen and Edward Cunningham of the 1700 block of Wickham Way in Crofton charged that the "Blizzard Bear" Mr. Cunningham bought at the Baltimore-Washington International Airport gift shop and put in his daughter's crib in July 1991 was defective and caused her to choke to death.

The family named Applause Inc. of Woodland Hills, Calif., the manufacturer, and Host International Inc., a division of the Marriott Corp., which operated the gift shop.

Spokesmen for the two companies declined to comment yesterday, saying they hadn't seen the suit.

The lawyer for the baby's parents said the companies never should have allowed the 10-inch-high, white stuffed animal with a floppy red hat and a three-quarter-inch cotton pompon to be marketed.

"The pom-pom made that toy unsafe for children," said Gary I. Strausberg, the couple's lawyer. "Those companies had no business whatsoever designing or marketing a toy like that."

According to papers filed yesterday, Mr. Cunningham, a marketing and administrative executive with Martin Marietta Corp., purchased the bear from the BWI gift shop in December 1990, about six months before Alexandra Cunningham was born.

He gave it to the baby shortly after her birth May 14, 1991, and used it to try to calm her down on the night of July 23, 1991, because she was supposed to be asleep but was "fussy," according to the suit.

"Thinking the toy bear would comfort Alexandra, Edward Cunningham placed the Blizzard Bear next to Alexandra, tucked them in together under a blanket and patted Alexandra's back for a while before leaving the room," the suit said.

When Mrs. Cunningham, a pediatric nurse at Johns Hopkins Hospital, got home at midnight, she checked on her daughter, who appeared to be sleeping.

Mr. Cunningham found the baby the next morning, "her hands blue and cold to the touch."

Mrs. Cunningham performed cardio-pulmonary resuscitation and cleared the white pom-pom from the airway, according to the suit.

An autopsy listed the cause of death as an obstruction of the airway by a foreign object, the suit charges.

Mr. Strausberg said he is unsure whether the toy still is being marketed anywhere in the United States but that it has been taken off the shelves at Marriott's BWI gift shop.

Frank Kriven, a compliance officer for the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, said the commission had no other reports of deaths caused by the Blizzard Bear. The toy has not been recalled.

Mr. Kriven said the safety of toys for children under 3 is monitored as a requirement of the Consumer Product Safety Act of 1972 and that 100 unsafe toys were pulled off the shelves last year.

"We're always looking for choking, aspiration, hazardous things that a small child could choke on," he said.

But he said it is largely left up to the nation's 3,000 toy manufacturers to do their own testing and to police themselves.

"With all the toys, and all the toy makers out there, the federal government just doesn't have the resources to do the testing on its own," he said.

He said it could have been the case of one defective teddy bear.

But Mr. Strausberg said he has experts lined up ready to testify that it was the toy's overall design, and not problems with this individual toy, that caused the death.

"This pom-pom was glued on, not sewn on," he said.

Mr. Strausberg said the Cunninghams have one other child, a young boy, and that Mrs. Cunningham has recently become pregnant.

But he said that the trauma of the death put both parents into therapy and has scarred their lives forever.

"Understandably, it created a real strain on their marriage and a real strain on their lives," he said. "Nothing can ever be done that will bring this child back."

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