Paraplegic from Maine, burned by heated seat, blames GM

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YARMOUTH — Emma Verrill didn’t know that the heated seat in the back of her friend’s Chevrolet Suburban had been turned on until she awoke the next day in 2012 to find a blister the size of her palm on her skin.

Verrill, who is paralyzed from the waist down and can’t feel hot and cold in the lower half of her body, suffered a third-degree burn on her buttocks that was so serious it required surgery and months in bed to heal.

Verrill, 26, is now suing General Motors, the legally troubled maker of the Suburban she had been riding in, seeking to hold the company liable for her injury. In a complaint filed on her behalf last month in U.S. District Court in Portland, she accused the automaker of negligence for failing to adequately test the rear seat heaters in the Suburban to prevent them from reaching “dangerously high temperatures that would burn human flesh.”

Verrill has been paralyzed since she underwent a spinal operation that went terribly wrong in 2003, when she was a 15-year-old sophomore at Yarmouth High School. She will need a wheelchair for the rest of her life.

She said she couldn’t feel that the seat heater in her friend’s 2008 Suburban had somehow been switched on and gotten so hot that it seared her skin. It was a warm day on June 28, 2012, as she and her friend were driving from New York City through Connecticut, so there was no reason the heater would be on. 

 

“I have very limited sensation. I have touch sensation, but I don’t have temperature sensation. So if water is too hot or if something is too cold, I can’t tell. Because of that, my body can tell me in other ways if there is something that isn’t really right. And I just knew that something was wrong,” Verrill said.

Beneath the blister, Verrill’s skin was badly scarred, she learned during a series of hospital visits after the injury. A doctor had to remove a section of skin from her upper left thigh to graft in place of the burned flesh.

Verrill’s lawsuit comes as General Motors has been repudiated nationally for serious safety defects in other vehicle models.

In 2014 alone, General Motors has recalled more than 20 million vehicles. The company issued nearly all of those recalls after first recalling 2.6 million older Chevrolet Cobalts and similar cars with defective ignition switches that have been tied to dozens of crashes and at least 13 deaths.

None of those recalls involved heated seats in General Motors’ Suburban line, one of its largest sport utility vehicles. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has not received any consumer complaints about the vehicles’ seat heaters, said José Alberto Uclés, a spokesman for the government agency.

Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the nonprofit Center for Auto Safety, said the consumer advocacy group also has no records of recalls or lawsuits related to seat heaters in the Suburban line.

There were 144 model year 2008 Chevrolet Suburbans registered in Maine as of June 2014, according to the state Bureau of Motor Vehicles.

General Motors has filed a court response denying Verrill’s claims. In the nine-page filing, GM denied the seat heater was defective or dangerous, denied it caused Verrill’s injury and denied knowledge of a defect or failure to fix a defect.

U.S. Magistrate Judge John Rich III has issued a scheduling order telling both sides to be ready for trial by May 4, 2015.

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