Naples couple files lawsuit over death of toddler

Naples Daily News


Parents found 3-year-old daughter dead, tangled in cords of window blinds

By Liz Freeman

Monday, January 16, 2006

Keri Ann Behling sang to her two young daughters to get them sleepy.

When they wouldn't settle down, she read stories until their eyelids drooped shut.

The joyful routine that mothers relish ended after Kialee Behling, 3, and Ashleigh, 2, finally went to sleep shortly after midnight Feb. 4, 2005.

Later in the morning, the 23-year-old mother was busy with her baby, Lila. Her husband, Joshua, had left earlier for his plumbing/electrical job. Behling went into her daughters' shared bedroom around 10 a.m. to rouse them for a trip to the park.

"I walked in and was getting ready to say, 'It's a beautiful day' and before I could finish my sentence I saw her," she said.

Kialee somehow had gotten entangled in the cords of the window blind and was hanging motionless. Behling got her out and rushed her to the living room and called 911. It was too late.

The Behlings have filed a wrongful death lawsuit against several manufacturing, distributing and marketing companies believed to be affiliated with the blinds. Also named as defendants are Home Depot Inc. and the couple's former landlords and property manager. The Behlings moved out of the duplex they rented on 55th Terrace Southwest after their daughter's tragic death.

The lawsuit filed in late December in Miami-Dade Circuit Court says the manufacturers and Home Depot, where the blinds were purchased, were negligent in making and selling the window products with the cords, running in excess of 7 and 1/4 inches long, posing a risk of strangulation.

The companies knew the design was dangerous and twice admitted such and engaged in a redesign but the blinds remained dangerous, according to the lawsuit. The manufacturers chose not to do a recall to prevent further deaths, the complaint says. Instead, the manufacturers choose to blame parents for neglect.

The personal injury lawsuit comes on the heels of a class-action lawsuit filed last fall in Illinois with 62 window-treatment defendants, said Sharon Hanlon, the Naples attorney for the local family. The Behlings' lawsuit will not become a part of the larger action, which is still seeking class-action certification.

"But any consumers can become part of the class-action lawsuit," Hanlon said.

Since her daughter's death, Behling has become an advocate for educating parents about the dangers of window blind cords. She set up a booth at a child safety fair in October at Veterans Park in North Naples to spread the word, demonstrating how a child can die seven different ways from getting tangled up in the cords. She distributes information put out by Parents for Window Blind Safety, founded in 2002 by a Missouri family after their 1-year-old daughter was strangled by window blind cords.

"Most of what I am trying to do is make sure it doesn't happen to anyone else," Behling said. "I think it is really unfair of these companies who know more children can die. If they had done their job and informed people, I wouldn't have lost my daughter."

She has spotted window blinds with long cords, and with inner cords that can be pulled to form a dangerous loop, in day-care centers, children's reading rooms in libraries, patient rooms in hospitals and doctors' offices.

"Nine times out of 10, the cord is in a child's reach, just enough to get them interested," she said.

Since 1973, there have been at least 380 strangulations among young children involving window treatment cords, according to figures collected by plaintiffs in another lawsuit, furnished to Hanlon by the plaintiffs' attorneys in the class-action case.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission cites at least 200 strangulations since 1991 involving cords or chains on window treatments. The commission recommended recalls in 1994 and again in 2000 but the manufacturers aren't legally bound to act, Hanlon said.

"(The commission) can make recommendations and warnings," Hanlon said. "It doesn't have a lot of teeth. The most important thing is the manufacturers, sellers and distributors have basically turned a blinds eye."

•••

Behling and her family moved into the rental duplex in August 2004. The mini-blinds already were installed. She didn't know of the risks.

"I didn't think anything about it," she said. "I thought their room was just fine."

For some reason on that fateful day last February, Kialee pulled a toy chest close to the window and stepped on it, perhaps to get something on top of a dresser in front of the window, Hanlon said. The child's bed wasn't near the window, she said.

"Like most parents, they didn't know (of the dangers) until it occurred," Hanlon said. "It is not well-publicized."

In 1994, the product safety commission worked with the window treatment industry to redesign blinds to eliminate the outer loop on the end of pull cords, resulting in free repair kits becoming available to consumers to fix their blinds. Window blinds sold since 1995 no longer have pull cords ending in loops, according to the commission.

But accidental strangulations of young children continued. From 1991 to 2000, there were 140 strangulations involving the outer pull cords and 20 deaths involving the inner cords that run through blind slats and can be pulled to form loops, according to the commission's Web site.

That prompted the commission to pursue more safety measures, resulting in a redesign whereby blinds sold after November 2000 have attachments to prevent the inner cords from forming a loop if pulled. Consumers with older blinds were advised to repair them.

The redesigns haven't eliminated the hazards and the older window blind models predating the changes still exist in households, Hanlon said. The kit put out by the commission in conjunction with the Window Covering Safety Council aims to prevent outer cords from forming dangerous loops but it is not a sure thing, she said

"It doesn't stop loops from forming," she said. "The main purpose is to alert parents about the dangers of cords."

The owners of the Behling's former duplex, David and Patricia Donlan, who live in Closter, N.J., and who own other property in Collier County, couldn't be reached for comment. The property manager, Richard Fardy, of Naples, and named as a defendant, likewise couldn't be reached.

Hanlon said it is unclear if the owners or property manager were aware of the dangers of the blinds. What is known is the blinds were purchased at Home Depot because of a company label on the upper part of the blind. She believes the blinds were purchased after 2002.

On the bottom blind slat is a red warning label, stating that young children can get entangled in the cord or tassel loops. The warning advises use of safety devices to minimize loops.

Hanlon said it is "always one possibility" that manufacturers will argue a warning on a product relieves them of responsibility in such liability cases.

"The question comes up, is that enough for the average consumer?" she said.

Officials at Home Depot and their attorneys couldn't be reached for comment.

Dale Friedman, an attorney for Norman International Inc., a California-based company and one of the defendants, said Norman doesn't manufacture window blinds, only shutters.

"They had nothing to do with this incident," Friedman said.

The other manufacturer defendants are Nien Made Window Fashions, Custom Craft Company, International Window Treatments, and Dongguan Fanchang Curtain Products

For the Behlings, the one-year anniversary of Kialee's death is approaching.

"We're able to function again, we're able to be a family," Behling said. "But things will never be the same. I don't want this to ever happen to another child."

© 2005 Bonita Daily News and The Banner. Published in Bonita Springs, Florida, USA by the E.W. Scripps Co.

Zelman & Hanlon, P.A. Florida Legal Elite 2013 ABA American Bar Association