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Moorhead family sues after boy burned in grill explosion; says it should have had safety device

Devan VanBrunt is shown recovering from the explosion in the burn unit at Regions Hospital in St. Paul in 2010. His mother filed a lawsuit suing the maker of the gas can used and Walmart, the seller of the can. Photo special to The Forum

MOORHEAD - The family of a 13-year-old boy badly burned in an explosion last April after he poured gasoline on a lit barbecue grill has filed a lawsuit claiming the gas container should have had a safety device to help prevent the fiery blast.

The federal lawsuit from Robyn Smith, the mother of Devan VanBrunt, claims Blitz U.S.A. Inc., the Oklahoma company that made the plastic gas can, and Wal-Mart, the retailer that sold it, are liable because the container wasn't outfitted with a flame arrestor.

The lawsuit describes a flame arrestor as a metal screen or wire mesh device inside the opening of the container, designed to let liquid flow out but prevent flames from flashing back into the can.

There is no specific figure for damages named in the lawsuit, but the civil complaint said the family is seeking compensation for past and future medical care, wages lost and emotional distress.

Blitz can be held liable for damages resulting from the lack of an arrestor, the civil complaint alleges, in part because other manufacturers of gasoline cans - Eagle Manufacturing and Chilton - have built containers that include them. The company should have known the lack of a flame arrestor posed a "tremendous and horrific risk of injury," the lawsuit claims.

Moved to the U.S. District Court of Minnesota last week after its initial filing in state court, the lawsuit seeks damages on grounds of negligence and claims the product was defective and Blitz had a duty to warn users of its dangers.

As the seller of the Blitz gas can, VanBrunt's family is also suing Wal-Mart on nearly the same grounds, arguing the retailer should know gas cans that don't have flame arrestors are dangerous because of prior product liability lawsuits.

The lawsuit alleges pouring gas on a charcoal grill is a reasonable, foreseeable use of the container,

Written responses to the claims hadn't been filed by the end of the day Tuesday, according to federal court records, but Ron McLean, a Fargo lawyer representing both Blitz and Wal-Mart, said the companies will deny any liability.

McLean said he expects the lawsuit to go before a magistrate for mediation and estimated it will take 12 to 14 months to resolve.

Henry Anderson III, the Texas attorney leading the plaintiff's case, couldn't be reached for comment.

The explosion happened just before 8 p.m. on April 11, 2010. In addition to the injuries to VanBrunt, a 21-year-old nearby neighbor, Dane Tvedt, collapsed and died as he rushed toward the aftermath of the blast.

VanBrunt was hospitalized for about a month afterward, burns covering much of his torso and portions of his arms, said Bill Smith, husband of Robyn Smith, on Tuesday.

The recovery was painful, but the 13-year-old is back in school and doing better, sometimes able to take off the compression garments that protect his burns, Bill Smith said.

"This has put a lot of stress on my family," said Smith, who said he's raised VanBrunt since he was an infant but isn't his legal guardian.

Smith said he also can't help remembering Tvedt's death every time he's in the backyard of their home in north Moorhead.

"Every day the thought goes through my mind," he said.