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LITIGIOUS SOCIETY The Case of the Killer TV

A domestic spat resulted in a death. Should Panasonic pay?
By KAREN AND MIKE SHROPSHIRE |

WHEN THE HARD-WORKING AND eager Japanese capitalists of the Matsushita Electronics Corp. of America took over Panasonic, it’s a safe bet that they had never heard of the Dallas law firm headed by Windle Turley, one of the country’s leading specialists in personal injury law. After all, the Japanese come from a society radically different from ours. It’s racially homogeneous, offers less social mobility, and accords its elderly citizens a healthy dose of respect.

There is one major point of similarity, however. Both Japan and the United States have their own legendary caste of fearless warriors who will stop at nothing to achieve their ends.

In Japan they’re called samurai. In America they’re called plaintiffs’ lawyers. And Japanese tycoon-sans, if they continue their investment forays into the New World, will soon be quite familiar with them.

The Ford Motor Company knows Windle Turley. He sought $100 million in damages against them on behalf of the widow of Collin County sheriff Joseph Steenbergen, who died of injuries sustained In a wreck. Turley claimed Ford was negligent on the grounds that the 1982 Fairlane driven by the sheriff wasn’t equipped with airbags. In 1989, after five weeks of testimony, a jury took five hours to vindicate Ford. Steenbergen’s widow is appealing. The European company that built the Swiss Sky Ride at the State Fair of Texas knows Turley. He secured more than $8 million for two families of persons killed and injured when a Sky Ride gondola fell at the fair in 1979.

Yes, a lot of people know Windle Turley and his firm, and after a gruesome sequence of events that took place in Dallas on July 6, 1986, the fellas at Matsushita know him, too. Ah so.

It seems that Beatrice and Leon Beltran were having a marital spat. Well, it was more than just a spat. At the Sportatorium, they call it a Battle Royal. The disagreement reached a crescendo when Leon threw a bottle of Hawk Cologne at Beatrice.

Luckily, Beatrice managed to dodge the missile, but an innocent bystander, that being the family Panasonic television set, became a casualty. The bottle struck the TV, causing a small rupture of the Panasonic screen. Some of the cologne, which consists of a 75 percent ethyl alcohol base, apparently seeped inside the picture tube.

Beatrice decided that she had had just about enough of Leon and his cologne-flinging fits. She decided to move and called a neighbor, Cynthia Barrientos, to come over and help her pack her things.

Cynthia entered the Beltran home, and what happened next introduced a whole new chapter in the history of television and violence.

No one actually witnessed the accident. Leon Beltran had left the house, and Beatrice was in the bedroom when Cynthia apparently attempted to turn on the Panasonic. When she did, the set exploded.

Cynthia was struck in the face and neck by flying glass and bled to death.

Because of this event, Matsushita of America would learn, via the petition filed in a Dallas court by one of Turley’s lawyers, that their Panasonic model CTG-1909 was an accident waiting to happen.

The lawsuit demanded that the TV manufacturer pay an unspecified sum to the estate of Cynthia Barrientos and her family members on grounds of negligence, products liability, and breach of warranty of merchantability.

In effect, the attorney for the Barrientos family argued that Matsushita should have foreseen that a household accident, in this case a speeding bottle of Hawk Cologne, could allow a flammable substance to at some point enter a devacuumized Panasonic tube and cause the set to blow up. thus leading to grave injury or death for an innno-cent viewer.

For reasons known only to the plaintiff, the good people who bring us Hawk Cologne were not named in the lawsuit.

The case would eventually be presented to a Dallas jury, although the panel would never debate the merits of the suit. Trial judge Merrill Hartman ordered a directed verdict, meaning that he felt that the plaintiff had not presented sufficient evidence to prove the alleged defective condition of the TV set. He dismissed the jury and threw the case out of his court.

As is customary in the modern American theater of law, this was merely Act I.

The state Court of Appeals in Dallas ruled that the testimony of electrical engineer John David Stewart, who pointed out that flammable household cleaners could foreseeably enter a television tube and that a $50 pressure differential switch would have prevented power after devacuumization, was adequate to take the case to the jury.

The appeals court ordered a retrial.

Lawyers for Matsushita then applied for a writ to the Texas Supreme Court, but that court, after reviewing the record, refused the request. Now the issue is again pending before the trial court. Windle Turley’s daughter, Linda Turley, is handling the second trial.

So it goes in America, where insurance defense lawyers claim they have to resort to hardball tactics to ward off multimillion dollar judgments. Plaintiffs’ lawyers claim they have to sue to get fair treatment from stingy corporations and insurance companies that delay payment and deny full compensation to maximize profits for themselves- Lawyers on both sides publicly deplore the situation, as they weep their way to the deposit window.

Right now, the Japanese offer proof that a capitalist society need not also be a litigious society. Time will tell if the Japanese-American experience will alter that.