Jury awards $4.75 million in Vienna fireworks accident

By Tom Jackman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 12, 2010; 10:26 PM

The high-powered "salute" rocket, a tightly compressed, 3-inch tube of gunpowder, rice and cardboard designed to create a massive boom during a Fourth of July fireworks show, costs about $1.50. But when fired into a crowd of horrified spectators during the town of Vienna's 2007 show, it suddenly cost two Fairfax County families, and a Pennsylvania fireworks company, much more.

A Fairfax County jury Friday decided that the company, Schaefer Pyrotechnics, should pay Kathryn Hollis $4.75 million for the injuries and financial damage she suffered after a salute shell exploded next to her on Waters Field that night, with her 3-year-old son, Max, on her lap. The jury's verdict came after a civil trial of more than three weeks and deliberations that lasted 10 hours over two days.

"It's nice to have some validation," Hollis, 39, said after the verdict. She suffered not only severe burns to her head, face, arms and torso, but also large, penetrating shrapnel wounds and lasting brain injury from a concussion wave that left "a lot of dead zones in Katy's head," as her attorney, Scott A. Surovell, put it.

Another suit is forthcoming for Hollis's younger son, who spent three days in a coma and also sustained burns and severe brain injury. The extent of damage to Max, now 7, is still being determined, Surovell said.

Schaefer's attorney, Francis J. Prior Jr., declined to comment after the verdict and didn't know whether the company would appeal.

The fireworks disaster, caused when a "cake box" of mortars overturned and launched its shells sideways rather than skyward, was repeated six times at various spots across Northern Virginia that night and at more than two dozen Schaefer fireworks shoots elsewhere that evening, court records show. And several of those faulty shoots ended before Vienna's show started, Surovell said.

Surovell argued that Schaefer should have known, simply by looking at the box of "Assortment #5," made in China, that it wasn't the right set of fireworks. Upon opening the box, a large label warns that spectators must be at least 250 meters [820 feet] away from the firing spot. The crowd was about 450 feet away, more than the U.S. code standard for three-inch shells.

And "Assortment #5" held 25 cardboard tubes with the three-inch shells, when U.S. codes impose a limit of no more than 15 such rockets per box. "You're not allowed to shoot it. Period," Surovell said.

Schaefer's owner, Kimmel Schaefer, testified that he also didn't test the boxes, purchased for the first time in 2007 from a new supplier, and said in a pretrial deposition that "fireworks blow up, it's fireworks." Schaefer also said in that deposition: "I have to take liability. It was our fireworks show."

Surovell told the jury, "This is the only industry I'm aware of that uses live human beings as crash test dummies, and that's what Kimmel Schaefer did."

The rocket that launched into the Vienna spectators initially struck Michael Ku of the Vienna area in the chest, knocking him down. It then exploded next to the Hollises; in addition to Kathryn and Max, also of the Vienna area, her then-7-year-old son, Alex, was standing nearby and also was hurt. The jury awarded him $45,000 on Friday.

Ku and his son, Conley, then 6, suffered burns, perforated eardrums and shrapnel wounds. The Kus and the Hollises both sued the Chinese manufacturer, called Liuyang Jinsheng Fireworks Co. Ltd., as well as Schaefer, the town of Vienna and Fairfax County.

Documents obtained by the lawyers showed that Vienna had had problems for years with fireworks debris falling on houses, spectators and even a nearby fire station. In 2004, Fairfax County's fire department, responsible for inspecting and monitoring the shows, tried to push spectators farther away from the Vienna fireworks location, just off Maple Street in the heart of town. The location "causes the Fire Prevention Division more concern than any other site in Fairfax County," in part because of problems with "fallout (ash) raining down on the spectators," then-Fire Chief Michael P. Neuhard wrote.

But Vienna protested, court records show, and Fairfax relented.

The Kus settled their lawsuit with Schaefer, Vienna and Fairfax earlier this year, attorney Joseph Cammarata said. He declined to provide the dollar amount. The fireworks manufacturer did not respond to the suit.

In August, Hollis dropped Vienna and Fairfax from the suit. Surovell said he "wanted to simplify our presentation to the jury for the purposes of this trial." He can refile against them later.

Much of the trial was spent documenting the lasting impact on Kathryn Hollis's life. In addition to the painful burns, the blast also fractured her arm, and she required multiple surgeries. Now the youthful mother, once described as "Martha Stewart on steroids," must leave notes for herself to remember the simplest tasks, Surovell said.

Surovell estimated Hollis's past and future medical and economic costs at $1.9 million. He asked the jury for an additional $5 million for pain and suffering. Jury members declined to be interviewed after the verdict.

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