EXCLUSIVE: Lawsuit blames space heater made in 1980s for fatal fire in San Francisco

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- When temperatures in the Bay Area start to fall, people turn to space heaters to help them stay warm.

Now, a space heater is the focus of a wrongful death lawsuit after a fatal house fire near Golden Gate Park.

The lawsuit, filed in federal court in San Francisco, says a space heater manufactured in the 1980s caused a tragic fire that killed a beloved shopkeeper in 2013.

But 26 years ago, federal safety investigators warned that space heater model posed a potential fire hazard. And today thousands of the devices may still be in use across the country.

The case is raising questions and may raise awareness about space heaters and fire safety for people across the country, especially for owners of the specific older model space at the center of the lawsuit.

It was Christmas 2013 and Patrick Ferry was making cookies.

"I heard this really big crash, like a boom! Lots of glass. What the hell is that?", Ferry said.

Ferry raced upstairs to the bedroom where Randy Sapp, his partner of 29 years, had been sleeping. The smoke was already too thick to see and the intense heat prevented him from going into the bedroom.

"I tried to enter the room and it was all flames," Ferry said.

"I screamed his name. I said 'Randy, get out!' And he came out of the room when I called and he was completely covered in flames from head to toe," Ferry said.

Ferry said he tried to put the flames out with his hands. He tackled Sapp and rolled him in the carpet.

"The flames were coming at us," he says.

Ferry carried Sapp out onto the porch.

"I was holding his head and saying, 'Oh Randy, oh Randy.' I was just devastated," Ferry said.

Both Ferry and Sapp were rushed to the hospital. Sapp did not survive.

Ferry has filed a federal wrongful death lawsuit claiming an oil-filled electric DeLonghi space heater manufactured in the 1980s caused the fire. The lawsuit says a "defect in the Delonghi heater caused it to catch fire" and the company "should have known" the device "created a danger to users."

The lawsuit cites a 1991 notice from the United States Consumer Safety Protection Commission warning users of potential fire hazards connected to some of the same make and model of the heaters.

The CSPC's notice said electrical failures within some control panels in the heaters "could cause fires."

It announced that DeLonghi, the manufacturer would voluntarily replace control panels. But it also says, "The manufacturer does not believe any safety hazard exists."

Ferry's attorney Walter Haynes says the heaters were built in Italy in the 1980s and they were not designed for U.S. power sources. Haynes claims it was a design defect. He said, "the heaters overheat over time."

The Consumer Product Safety Commission warning was prompted in part by 18 lawsuits filed prior to the 1991 notice. All the lawsuits alleged the heaters caused fires, some fatal.

None of the lawsuits ever went to trial, according to DeLonghi's Attorney Victor Pino.
He has defended the company in more than a dozen cases.

He told the ABC7 I-Team there were no defects in the heaters DeLonghi manufactured.
He said the company has never been found liable, or negligent in cases involving the heaters.

Pino also says DeLonghi has been designing and manufacturing high-quality electrical appliances for many years.

He points out that the heater in this case was most likely manufactured more than 30 years ago.

And Pino said the number of heaters alleged to have malfunctioned is "miniscule" compared to the millions of heaters manufactured.

Patrick's attorney Walter Haynes says DeLonghi built over 3.6 million of these heaters and he's concerned many are still out there, still in use today.

Haynes has been hunting down heaters from across the country on Craigslist and eBay to test and compare to the one he alleges caused the fire that killed Randy Sapp.

"We've tested 26 of them," said.

Haynes and his client say they want to get the word out to anybody still using one of these heaters about the CPSC 1991 notice.

Talking about how he survived the fire that killed Sapp, Ferry said, "I needed to find something to live for."

He is still working to renovate and repair the house he shared with Sapp on Baker Street. The two men also shared a devotion to the shop they ran together for nearly three decades.

The Sword and Rose, a Cole Valley business, is described as a store for mystical and spiritual pursuit where customers can have a tarot card reading or purchase candles, crystals and guidebooks among other things. It still sells the homemade incense based on Sapp's recipes.

"We shared so much of our lives together on every level," Ferry explains.

"This case is not just about the loss of Randy Sapp or Patrick's loss, or his injuries. This case is a lot about people that we've never met," said Walter Haynes. "People out there that can still lose their lives, lose their homes as a result of these heaters."

Haynes says the lawsuit is set to go to trial in March of next year.

The ABC7 I-Team found several useful links to help people avoid space heater fire safety dangers:
Tips on space heater fire safety from the Consumer Product Safety Commission
Safety information on space heaters from the CPSC
CPSC web page with information on electric heaters

The lawsuit cites a 1991 notice from the United States Consumer Product Safety Commission warning users of potential fire hazards connected to some of the same make and model of the heaters.

The CPSC notice said electrical failures within some of the control panels in the heaters "could cause fires."

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