Toy maker settles choking death suit

September 23, 1994|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,Sun Staff Writer

The parents of a 10-week-old girl who choked to death on a teddy bear's pompon agreed to take $1.5 million in return for dropping their negligence suit against the toy manufacturer.

Edward and Colleen Cunningham of the 1700 block of Wickham Way, Crofton, filed suit last year in Anne Arundel Circuit Court, claiming that Applause Inc., a California firm, manufactured a toy bear with defects that led to the death of their daughter, Alexandra Marie.

The settlement was reached after two days of testimony in a jury trial before Judge Bruce C. Williams that included testimony from Mrs. Cunningham and a child safety expert hired by the Cunninghams.

Gary Strausberg, the Cunninghams' lawyer, said Applause Inc. supplies airport gift shops around the world with toys. The company made the red and white "Blizzard Bear" in Korea and shipped it to stores internationally in 1988 and 1989, he said.

In that time, 21,000 Blizzard Bears were sold in the United States, mostly as Christmas gifts, he said.

According to the suit, Mr. Cunningham, a marketing executive, bought the bear for about $14 at a Baltimore-Washington International Airport gift shop in December 1990, five months before Alexandra Marie 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.

Mr. Cunningham tucked the bear in with his daughter when he put her to bed at 8 p.m., Mr. Strausberg 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 at 6 a.m., "her hands blue and cold to the touch," the suit said.

A state medical examiner determined the cause of death to be asphyxiation by a foreign object -- a 3/4 -inch white cotton ball that had been "spot glued" to the teddy bear's red sock hat.

Mr. Strausberg said that as part of the settlement, the Cunninghams agreed not to discuss the case with reporters.

He said the baby was the couple's first child and only daughter. They have since had two boys.

"Obviously this had a devastating impact on them," he said.

Shelly Deppa, a toy safety expert from Rockville, testified that the pompon glued to the stuffed bear made it unreasonably dangerous for children under 3 years old.

Ms. Deppa, who examined toys as an analyst for the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, said that Congress enacted a law in 1987 that made such toys illegal.

But two years later, a federal court ruled that the Consumer Product Safety Commission had overstepped its bounds in interpreting the statutes.

Mr. Strausberg said that even without the laws, the bear never should have been marketed for use by small children because the pompon was glued on.

The lawyer for the toy maker, Jonathan Claiborne, declined comment.

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