After $50 million settlement, victims' mother blasts Ikea for leaving 'silent killer' on the market

Janet McGee sees the Ikea dresser that tipped and crushed her 22-month-old son, Ted, as a serial killer. Before that day in February, the product already had been linked to the deaths of two other boys.

But Ikea only warned the public to "lock their doors."

"The killer was still out there," the Minnesota mother wrote last month in a message directed at the retailer. "You had the power to remove it, but you didn't. You let it linger. You waited to see what would happen with the silent killer that sat inside people's homes."

McGee wrote the statement for lawyers representing the three families suing Ikea. On Wednesday, they announced the company had agreed to pay $50 million to settle the claims.

One liability expert called it an "astonishing" payout and an indication Ikea was intent to avoid a trial where long-standing concerns about its dressers would have been aired.

"A settlement of that size suggests to me they know they did something wrong," said Michael Green, a Wake Forest University law school professor who has represented companies facing product-liability suits. "Or they know a jury is going to find they did."

The settlements close out the wrongful-death lawsuits filed by the McGees, of Apple Valley, Minn., and parents of two 2-year-old boys who died in Ikea dresser tip-overs in 2014: Curren Collas of West Chester and Camden Ellis of Snohomish, Wash.

Ikea's attorneys declined to comment on the settlement. Ikea spokeswoman Mona Astra Liss, in a statement, also did not comment on the agreement but said the company offered its "sincerest condolences to the families of these tragedies."

"We will continue to work to raise awareness of this important safety issue," she said.

The lawsuits, filed in Philadelphia, were part of a wave of scrutiny on Ikea, which this summer recalled 29 million units and pulled half of its dressers off the market, acknowledging they did not meet the industry standard for stability.

That came a year after pressure from federal safety regulators led the company to first try a "repair program," which included a public awareness campaign and free replacement wall-anchoring kits.

The Sweden-based company has since agreed to make compliant furniture moving forward. But that has not lifted the pressure.

Last week, Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D., Ill.), chairwoman of the Committee on Energy and Commerce, criticized Ikea over its recall efforts. In a letter to executives at the company, she said it had not sufficiently spread the message and had been slow to distribute repair kits.

"Such delays are dangerous," she wrote. "In fact I am aware of at least one tip-over accident that resulted in injury that occurred after the consumer requested a repair kit but before that kit arrived."

The parents who filed the recent suits also accused the company of being slow to respond to the threat. The suits contended Ikea was aware of the danger posed by the products for years but continued to sell them.

In court documents, Ikea had argued the parents were negligent for not anchoring the dressers to the wall, as the assembly instructions direct.

Janet McGee, in her statement, said she only heard of the dresser repair program after her son's death. She blasted Ikea for not issuing a recall sooner.

"To you, this is another number, a statistic, a business decision," she said of her son's death and the negotiations to end the lawsuits. "You get to go home to your families at night. I go home to a quiet house that used to be filled with laughter and smiles."

Alan Feldman, an attorney for McGee and the other parents, said this week that he was confident the details of each child's death would have persuaded a jury the retailer was negligent. But he said he also believes Ikea was more inclined to settle out of court after it recently handed over internal documents it for months had claimed were confidential.

Feldman wouldn't disclose the contents of those records. But based on the settlement figure, legal experts had a similar read on the strength of the families' case.

Green, the professor from Wake Forest, said awards involving the death of a child tend to be minimal because it is difficult to calculate what he or she would have earned in a lifetime. He said Ikea may have agreed to such a large sum because it was worried a jury would award punitive damages.

Benjamin Zipursky, a professor at Fordham Law School and an expert in product-liability law, said the size of the settlement indicated to him Ikea thought a jury could have gone even higher.

"You have to wonder: What did [Ikea] think the size of a verdict after a whole trial could be if they're willing to settle for $50 million?" Zipursky said.

News of the recall rippled elsewhere Thursday, including to Lisa Siefert, an Illinois mother who lost her son Shane to a dresser tip-over (not involving an Ikea product) in 2011. In the years since, Siefert has worked to raise awareness through her nonprofit, Shane's Foundation. Her efforts are funded mostly out-of-pocket.

As part of this week's settlement, Ikea agreed to donate $100,000 to Shane's Foundation. The news left Siefert stunned.

She said her goals - raising awareness among consumers and pushing companies to make safer products - will not change.

"I will continue to shout it from the rooftops," she said. "And now my voice can be louder."

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