105: The Darwin Awards Meets Stella

Stella Case No. 105, Originally Published: 25 January 2006

While trying to use a can of hair spray, Lorraine Squicciarini found the nozzle was clogged. Run the nozzle under warm water, maybe? No way: with a can opener, she “opened a hole in the bottom of the Aquanet can in an attempt to clear the nozzle. The contents, including vapors and highly flammable and explosive materials,” blew out of the can.

“The pilot light of the gas range ignited it,” said the family’s lawyer, David Schoen. “She soon became engulfed in flames, turning her whole body, virtually from head to toe, into a ball of fire.”

Horrific. In the burn ward she begged to die and, the day after the accident, she did.

The cause of the accident is not in dispute. In fact, the quoted words above about how she pierced the can of hair spray with a can opener were from the lawsuit filed by Squicciarini’s daughters against Unilever USA, which makes Aquanet. The suit, filed in the Brooklyn Supreme Court, claims wrongful death. It seeks $10 million in damages plus $100 million in punitive damages.

“We used a lot of Aqua Net.” —Ronnie Spector, leader of “The Ronettes” (who died in January 2022). Photos: 1980’s magazine ad, a publicity shot of Spector.

The suit says the company manufactured a “defective” product and provided “inadequate” warnings and instructions on the can. “The printed warning against puncturing the can,” Schoen claims, “which was insufficient then, remains insufficient.”

You mean there already was a warning on the can that the victim ignored? Yes! Spray cans already warn that they should not be punctured. And hair spray cans note that the contents is flammable.

Do people really need to be specifically told in giant red letters on every spray can not to puncture it in the presence of open flames? And is it truly an outrageous act not to do that — so outrageous that the company is obligated to be penalized to the tune of $110 million to be paid to the family of someone who committed such a stupid act?

Squicciarini did not deserve a senseless, painful death. But it’s even more barbaric to blame someone else for an incredibly stupid thing she did to herself.

Sources

  • “Kin Sue in Hair Spray Fire Death”, New York Daily News, 24 December 2005.

Case Status

I found no updates whatever: I figure either Unilever paid a little bit to make the family go away quietly (i.e., a settlement), or the case was quietly dropped. I hope for the latter.

And by the way: the True Stella Awards has no association whatever with the Darwin Awards, and never has. The only thing we have in common is that we both serve a great need in the realm of online discussion, and we’re both signed with the same literary agent.

My 2022 Thoughts on the Case

Companies are often sued for not including a clear warning on their potentially dangerous products: lawyers say they should have clear warnings. In this case, the company was sued even though their product did have that clear warning. Yes it was tragic, but so is suing anyone over it.

Again as noted previously, several short cases were published “late,” so this really is a 2005 case.

Letters

Mike in Illinois: “I’ve been a fan of yours for several years now; perhaps I shouldn’t be. At one time, your missives gave me some pause for hope. However, I now find your mailings somewhat depressing, as I’ve come to the realization that the ease with which you find this material surely indicates that we are doomed as a species. For many years, I’ve loudly bemoaned the sheer lunacy of most of the human race, and threatened to move myself and my family to the Northwest Territories, figuring it would be harder for humankind to encroach upon my sensibilities up there. Eventually, I came to the realization that there were no safe places on Earth, and so decided that we should move to Mars as soon as possible. As my children (6 of them) are all very intelligent individuals, they’ve always been more than willing to start packing and accompany me on hiatus. I’m no longer convinced that Mars is far enough away. Perhaps we could book seats on the next expedition to Pluto?”

Too late, Mike: it left without you in January, and I was honored to witness the launch.

I do still have hope that these things can be fixed. We can (as Tony Blair put it) “replace the compensation culture with a common sense culture” — but only if enough of us demand it. The point of TSA and its book is to illustrate how ingrained the problem is in our culture, and prompt people to band together to take appropriate action. (It did take me an entire book to really explain it!) I’m sorry that the act of getting your eyes pried open hurts, but I really do think that’s what it takes.

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7 Comments on “105: The Darwin Awards Meets Stella

  1. When my son was a young teen, he bought that as propellant for his potato cannon. 🙂

    I used Right Guard deodorant, and always wondered how one deodorizes the Left side. 😉 -rc

    Reply
  2. If people are determined enough to demand “compensation” of millions (or tens of millions) of dollars for something that was clearly their fault — or the fault of the decedent, in this case — I’m not certain whether companies putting warnings in “giant red letters” would even help. Some people need huge flashing neon letters with accompanying audio, and even then they’d find a reason to file a lawsuit anyway. Sad.

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  3. Leaving for Mars is not the answer, as I’d bet the very first Tweet from Mars will be “I can see Russia from here!”

    Reply
  4. My cousins and I use to use aqua net in our pine cone cannon, ignited by fire crackers…it gave us time enough to get away…but there were a few chickens that didn’t make it. The cannon only would survive a few blast…we got in so much trouble for destroying my aunt’s vacuum cleaner steel tubes…the next Easter was not as much fun.

    Reply
  5. You mentioned the Darwin Awards in the case status. As it was her daughters who filed the suit, Mrs. Squicciarini wouldn’t have been eligible for the Darwin Award, as it goes to people who remove themselves from the gene pool without reproducing.

    So, you DIDN’T want me to address the title of the case? Hm.

    And you are not correct about the criteria. The DA web site and book introductions state: “In the spirit of Charles Darwin, the Darwin Awards commemorate individuals who protect our gene pool by making the ultimate sacrifice of their own lives. Darwin Award winners eliminate themselves in an extraordinarily idiotic manner, thereby improving our species’ chances of long-term survival.” Doesn’t say anything about “before they reproduce,” though some infer that. -rc

    Reply
  6. Why are these clowns never counter-sued???

    When they have assets, they often are. But if they have nothing, winning leaves you behind because they have no money to pay, and you still have to pay your lawyers for drawing up the suit. Confounding, ain’t it? -rc

    Reply

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