Spin Master Ltd. was ordered to pay $435,000 to the family of a child who was poisoned after swallowing toy beads coated with a material that dissolves into the same chemical as a date-rape drug.
In the first verdict over the recalled Aqua Dots game, a federal court jury in Phoenix determined Thursday that Toronto- based Spin Master and Moose Enterprise Pty Ltd were financially responsible for Ryan Monje’s poisoning. The 16-month-old toddler was rushed to the hospital in July 2007 after gulping candy- colored Aqua Dots beads and lapsing into a coma.
Moose, an Australian company, designed the toy, which includes arts-and-crafts beads covered with a substance that transforms into GHB, a date-rape drug, when ingested. Jurors concluded that firm and Spin Master, which distributed the product, must pay most of the damages awarded to Monje’s family. The panel cleared U.S. toy seller Toys ‘R’ US Inc. of financial responsibility for the boy’s injuries.
The companies may still face other lawsuits over the game, pulled off U.S. store shelves after a string of poisoning reports prompted the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission to order a 2007 recall. About a dozen Aqua Dots suits were consolidated before a federal judge in Chicago in 2008 for pre- trial information exchanges. Those cases settled in 2012 for an undisclosed amount, according to court filings.
Spin Master and Moose’s lawyers blamed a Chinese company that made the toy on an outsource basis for secretly spraying the beads with a chemical that metabolizes into GHB. That Hong Kong-based manufacturer wasn’t named as a defendant in the case because it doesn’t do business in the U.S.
Even though the jury found in their favor, Monje’s parents vowed to appeal a judge’s decision to bar them from seeking punitive damages against the toy companies.
“The fight continues,” said Mark Monje, the boy’s father. He noted the award won’t cover ongoing medical costs of treating his son’s injuries.
Tara Tucker, a Spin Master spokeswoman, didn’t immediately respond to phone or e-mail messages seeking comment on the verdict.
Dana Fox, a lawyer for Melbourne-based Moose, said outside the courtroom that his clients “respected the jury’s verdict.” Under the jury’s decision, Moose will be responsible for paying more than 50 percent of the total damages assessed, according court filings.
Spin Master officials agreed to pay a $1.3 million fine in 2011 for failing to alert regulators about reports children were hospitalized after swallowing Aqua Dots beads. The company also recalled 4.2 million units of the toy.
The Aqua Dots game, sold under the name Bindeez in Australia, was named that country’s toy of the year in 2007 by the Australian Toy Council and made Wal-Mart Stores Inc.’s list of the 12 best-selling toys.
Monje’s parents alleged exposure to the tainted beads left their son with brain damage and potentially millions of dollars in lifetime medical bills. They argued the chemical sprayed on the beads converts to gamma-hydroxy butyrate, commonly known as GHB.
Melanie McBride, one of the couple’s lawyers, told jurors all the companies had a duty to properly warn parents about Aqua Dots’s risks.
Instead, the firms shipped the toy without any cautions, saying on the game’s box that the beads were non-toxic and sugar based.
“Ryan had a toxic reaction to a banned chemical,” McBride told the panel in closing arguments. “You cannot sell illegal drugs to children.”
The companies’ attorneys said Hong Kong-based JSSY Ltd., the Chinese company hired to produce the Aqua Dots toys, switched coatings used on the beads without the defendants’ knowledge. Fox, the lawyer for Moose, told jurors that change caused the toddler’s GHB reaction.
“No one intentionally sold a toxic toy to Mrs. Monje,” Fox said.
The case is Monje v. Spin Master Inc., 09-cv-01713, U.S. District Court, District of Arizona (Phoenix).
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