By Julie Manganis
SALEM — A Salem Superior Court jury has ordered Toys "R" Us to pay more than $20 million to the family of a young mother who died five years ago after an inflatable pool slide sold by the national chain partially collapsed while she was using it during a pool party in Andover.
The Banzai Falls in-ground pool slide was never tested to determine whether it met federal safety standards for pool slides before or after it was imported from China by the retailer, a violation of federal law.
The jury's $20.6 million verdict, returned Thursday afternoon after a weeklong trial and less than an hour of deliberation, is believed to be the largest ever awarded by an Essex County jury and one of the highest in the state this year.
"He'd rather have his wife and his daughter's mother back," lawyer Thomas Smith, of Boston's Sugarman law firm, said yesterday of client Michael Aleo's reaction to the verdict. "He felt that there was a wrong done, and he is pleased that the jury recognized that. This product should not have been sold."
Robin Aleo was 29, married and the mother of an 18-month-old daughter. During a pool party at the Andover home of relatives on July 29, 2006, she climbed to the top of the 6-foot-high Banzai Falls slide, then started sliding down head-first.
Near the bottom, the slide suddenly bottomed out and Aleo struck her head on the edge of the pool, according to testimony. Her neck was broken, and she was left paralyzed and unable to breathe. She died the following day at a Boston hospital.
The Aleos, originally from Long Island, N.Y., were living in Colorado at the time and were in Andover to visit Michael Aleo's aunt and uncle, Sarah and William Letsky. They had purchased the pool slide the prior month from Toys "R" Us via Amazon's website.
Aleo and others at the party testified that the couple's daughter was present when her mother was pulled, unconscious, from the pool. Michael Aleo attempted mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and told jurors that as he looked at his wife, she mouthed the word "more." But the injury left her unable to breathe on her own, and her condition deteriorated.
Robin Aleo was at least the second person allegedly left paralyzed by such an incident on the Banzai Falls slide, of which more than 4,000 were sold nationwide, according to court records.
A camp counselor in Missouri, Mark Grantham, was left a quadriplegic when the same thing allegedly happened to him on a Banzai Falls slide purchased at a Walmart, according to court documents. His suit against both Walmart and the Chinese manufacturers is still pending.
Jurors were not told about the Missouri case but did learn that the company that Toys "R" Us uses in China to safety-test products before they are imported, Bureau Veritas, was never asked to test the pool slide for compliance with federal safety regulations.
The product was tested for other product safety rules — and twice failed, once for containing lead in excess of federal limits — but not for compliance with the Consumer Product Safety Commission pool slide regulation, a former Toys "R" Us executive acknowledged during testimony on Wednesday.
Lawyers for Toys "R" Us contended that the regulations did not apply to the Banzai slide because it was inflatable, and that they were not responsible for safety testing for compliance with regulations.
They also contended that Aleo had been injured when she attempted to dive off of the slide, and not while she slid down, which was contradicted by witnesses who testified.
While there is a small print warning not to use the slide head-first, federal safety standards required that the slide be tested for such a typical use.
Under those standards, all pool slides are also required to support a load of 350 pounds without "deformation" or giving way. The Banzai slide deforms under almost any weight at all, and the shifting of weight as a user slides down displaces the air at the bottom, making it unable to support any load, a plaintiff's expert witness concluded.
After the trial got under way, two other defendants named in the suit, Amazon.com, which was in a partnership with Toys "R" Us to sell items online, and the manufacturer SLB Toys USA both settled with Michael Aleo for undisclosed sums.
Two calls to the Toys "R" Us corporate public relations department were not returned yesterday.
The jury's verdict included $2.5 million in anticipated lost income from Aleo's apparently successful advertising and marketing career and other actual damages, $100,000 in compensation for pain and suffering before her death, and $18 million in punitive damages.
Essex County Clerk of Courts Thomas Driscoll said his office is still calculating the interest on the judgment but expects that it will be the largest ever awarded by an Essex County jury.
Smith, the attorney for the Aleo family, said he hopes the size of the verdict and in particular the punitive damages sends a message to all retailers and importers "to make sure, not just for toys but for all products, that they comply with our laws and that they are safe."