RHDC, RHA targets of lawsuit

n Toddler burned in Concord Commons stove tipping incident

A lawsuit has been working its way through the 17th Judicial Circuit since March 2000 that may cost defendants Rockford Housing Development Corporation, Rockford Housing Authority, Delaware-based White Consolidated Industries, Inc., and entities of the American Gas Association millions of dollars.

If plaintiffs Thalassa Shipp and her minor daughter win their case, will the financially troubled Rockford Housing Development Corporation be forced out of business? What effect will the case have on the Rockford Housing Authority?

The incident

Shipp’s attorneys, Larry Morrissey of Morrissey Law Offices in Rockford and Dan Sciano of Tinsman and Houser in San Antonio, Texas, allege that on Jan. 22, 1997, Shipp’s 2-year-old daughter and 4-year-old son were playing in the living room of their Concord Commons apartment at 321 Cameron Ave. Shipp was preparing lunch in the kitchen. On the stove was a handleless pot of hot cooking oil.

Shipp left the kitchen and went into the bathroom. What happened next changed Shipp and her daughter’s lives, according to Shipp’s attorneys.

The children opened the oven door and placed weight on the door. Shipp’s attorneys allege the cooking range that was heating the hot oil tipped forward, spilling the oil on Shipp’s daughter.

Shipp’s daughter received second- and third-degree burns on about 20 percent of her body, primarily to the left side, including her back, leg and arm. Thalassa and her mother immediately took Shipp’s daughter to the hospital, according to Morrissey and Sciano.

Shipp’s attorneys allege the incident that burned Shipp’s daughter could have been avoided had the defendants implemented several prevention measures. One of the prevention measures included installation of “anti-tip brackets” that were allegedly supplied with the Tappan gas cooking range (model MPF300PBWA), but never installed by Rockford Housing Authority (RHA) maintenance workers. An RHA administrator acknowledged in a deposition that the range was not installed according to the manufacturer’s instructions.

White Consolidated allegedly designed, manufactured and sold the range. The American Gas Association and its entities allegedly “approved” the safety of the gas range, according to Rockford Housing Development Corporation (RHDC) attorney Siobhan Murphy of Chicago’s Conklin, Murphy and Conklin.

However, Kevin Belford, general counsel for the American Gas Association, disputes Murphy’s claim that American Gas approved the safety of the gas range.

“We don’t approve products, we certify the product complies with American National Standards for domestic cooking appliances,” Belford said. “The design of the unit [gas range] complies with the standard, but safe installation requires adherence to manufacturer’s instructions and applicable local codes.”

Belford added, “RHA and RHDC failed to meet their obligations to adhere to the manufacturer’s installation instructions and possibly local codes.”


RHA manages Concord Commons for RHDC, a private, not-for-profit corporation. Concord Commons is regarded in police patrol officer circles as a crime and drug trafficking magnet. Concord Commons is commonly known to be the last choice of residence for public housing applicants aware of the housing project’s problems.

According to state records, RHDC was formed Oct. 19, 1978, whose agent is Rockford lawyer Thomas O Meyer of Meyer and Horning, P. C. State records list Meyer as Rockford Mayor Doug Scott’s campaign chairman. Meyer was also a former Rockford alderman in the late 1970s, who has also been heavily involved in the election campaigns of former Rockford mayors John McNamara and Charles Box.

RHA is a taxpayer supported agency that serves low-income families, and is directed by five commissioners appointed by Rockford’s mayor. The same commissioners appear to govern RHDC. The Aug. 7, 2003, edition of the Rockford Register Star reads, “RHDC pays RHA $8,000 a month to manage Concord and both agencies are governed by the same five commissioners appointed by [Rockford] Mayor Doug Scott.”

However, in a deposition given by Meyer last December, Meyer indicated that RHDC has the power to hire and fire its managing agent, which is currently RHA. Meyer’s testimony implies RHA commissioners have no real authority in decisions affecting Concord Commons.

Meyer referred questions to Murphy. Murphy said questions concerning the defendants’ percentage of responsibility and dollar amounts are probably going to be answered by a 12-member jury. March 2004 is the tentative trial date. Murphy said her firm has been involved in Shipp’s case since 1998.

Murphy added that RHDC has filed a “summary judgment” motion, which would relieve RHDC of liability in the case. A judge’s favorable ruling on the motion would not relieve the other defendants of their responsibility, Murphy said.

Murphy described RHDC’s responsibility in the case as “remote,” if at all. Should RHDC be found partially responsible for the incident, Murphy said she was confident RHDC had enough insurance coverage to pay for costs. Murphy declined to identify RHDC’s insurance company at this time.

RHA’s lawyer Rich Hodyl of the Chicago law firm of Williams, Montgomery and John, Ltd., was asked if the plaintiff’s prevail, how would the judgment affect the RHA? Hodyl said he couldn’t comment because too many questions remain unanswered. RHA Director Lewis Jordan did not return phone calls for this article.

Hodyl and Murphy said there are a total of seven defendants named in the lawsuit. Murphy identified RHDC, RHA, White Consolidated and four “entities” of the American Gas Association as the defendants.

The Rockford Register Star reported last month the federal Housing and Urban Development agency ordered RHDC to repay $657,000 the corporation “illegally” borrowed from RHA for operations. Jordan was left messages by The Rock River Times asking how much RHDC received from RHA since the RHDC’s 1978 incorporation date. However, Jordan did not respond to the messages left on his voice mail or with his assistant.

Gas range

A White Consolidated attorney, James Devine of Williams and McCarthy in Rockford, denied there were any design or manufacturing flaws in the cooking range that was involved in the stove tipping incident. Devine wouldn’t confirm or deny that White Consolidated sold the range to RHA. Devine said information about who sold the range to RHA will be part of the trial, which Devine expects to last about one month.

Shipp’s attorneys allege in the original complaint “the range and its component parts were manufactured, designed and marketed…in a defective condition from a stability standpoint as to its design and with regard to its warnings, directions and instructions for use.”

Morrissey and Sciano also allege alternative designs would have made the range safer. Such alternatives would include moving front range legs forward, counter weights, a breakaway oven door and better warning labels about the range’s “instability hazard” and need to install the anti-tip brackets.

Shipp’s attorneys also allege White Consolidated has been aware “for decades” about range tipping dangers. As a result of this awareness, Shipp’s attorneys allege White Consolidated began shipping units with anti-tip brackets. However, Morrissey and Sciano allege a 1987 “Chilton study showed” anti-tip brackets would not be “habitually” installed in “the real-world environment of use.”

Katie Hammer, reporter for WTVO-TV said Channel 17 broadcast her range tipping report Aug. 17. Hammer described the report as a consumer alert that has since been subpoenaed by attorneys involved in the case. Hammer said the Shipp incident was used as an example in the report.

The original complaint alleges six counts, concerning injuries, damages, medical expenses, product liability and negligence. Reportedly, the case is presently in mediation. According to Sciano and Morrissey, Shipp’s daughter faces many future

emotional and physical challenges as a result of the incident. Murphy said Shipp’s daughter is in school, which is an indicator of the child’s well-being.

To learn about consumer product safety notices visit www.cpsc.gov.

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