Under Pressure: Inside a Growing Litigation Trend

In 1679, inventor Denis Papin demonstrated the first recorded pressure cooker before the Académie des Sciences in Paris. He demonstrated that it was possible to cook food quicker through the application of high pressures. Under pressure, water boils at higher temperature, and thus braising can happen at higher temperatures, thus cooking the ingredients inside the liquid at an accelerated rate.

In recent years, counter-top self-contained electric pressure cookers have seen greater and greater sales. The bulk of these can do more than just cook food under pressure, and thus are formally dubbed “multicookers.”

However, cooking food under such high pressures comes with dangers. Since 2019, 292 lawsuits have been brought in federal court alleging damages from these pressure cookers unexpectedly exploding, according to Docket Alarm. Some plaintiffs allege the lids of these pressure cookers can be removed while the vessels are still under pressure. Others allege the lids spontaneously exploded off the unit. 

While the exact cause of failures vary case by case, Adam Kress, an attorney for Johnson Becker, the firm representing plaintiffs in 61% of these cases, says that one failure point is wear in the lids’ locking lugs and locking pin. Especially if the interlocking pieces are made of aluminum instead of, for example, stainless steel, repeated use can wear the mechanism such that the lid can be closed enough for the cooker to begin building up heat and pressure but not enough to engage the locking mechanism that prevents the lid opening while under pressure. 

Alternatively, a study by Khattak, Mukhtar, Ghumman, and Muhammad Jan found a pressure cooker could explode due to clogged pressure relief valves. This might happen due to a manufacturing defect, or it might happen due to improper care and cleaning.

The Complaints

The complaints themselves all tell roughly similar stories. The plaintiff bought the pressure cooker assuming it was of good quality, but the cooker exploded causing the plaintiff or their loved ones injuries. However, the documents themselves vary considerably in length. The mean complaint length is 14 pages and the median is 13. 95% of the complaints range from 6 pages to 30 pages. The longest complaint was brought in Aponte et al v. Sunbeam Products, Inc. et al, and sits at 70 pages. Complaint length did not vary by whether the case began in state court or in federal court. 

Overall Case Statistics

Far and away, the most common Nature of Suit (NOS) code is 365 Product Liability, with only 5% of cases containing the NOS code 245 Tort Product Liability. As to the cause of action listed in the civil cover sheets, the overwhelming majority, 92% cite 28:1331, and are in federal court due to the plaintiffs and defendants residing in different districts. 15% of cases began in state court before being removed to federal court. 

Looking at cases over time, monthly new suit filings generally increased until November 2022, where they peaked at 18 cases per month, and have been on the decline since, though there was a notable spike of 11 cases in November 2023. 

By party, the most-targeted company is Instant Brands, who is currently undergoing Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings. Following Instant Brands is Sunbeam Products, who make Crock-Pot brand pressure cookers; Tristar Products, who make Emeril Legasse-branded pressure cookers; Sharkninja Operating; Sensio, who make Bella-branded pressure cookers; and NuWave. Only 54% of the cases targeting Sunbeam that bear the NOS codes 365 and 245 concern pressure cookers; the remainder largely concern allegedly defective heating pads. Likewise, only 47% of the cases targeting Sharkninja concern pressure cookers; the remainder largely concern blenders. On August 10, 2023, Sensio announced a recall of Bella pressure cookers because the lids can be removed while the cooker is still under pressure.

By court, the plurality of cases have been filed in the Southern District of Florida, followed by the Northern District of Florida and the Northern District of Illinois. Controlling for district population, the Northern District of Florida has seen the most cases by far. 

The average case runs 351 days and contains 31 filings. Including cases that have yet to be resolved, pressure cooker cases have a new filing on average every two weeks.

Of the 292 cases, the plurality, 133, resulted in an out-of-court settlement. This marks a majority of all the resolved cases, as 95 are still-ongoing. 24 cases targeting Instant Brands have been stayed till their bankruptcy proceedings conclude. 17 cases were consolidated into a larger action, most notably Becerra Olguin v. Sunbeam Products, Inc. Three cases have made it to a final ruling: one in which the judge ruled in favor of the defendant, one in which the judge ruled in favor of the plaintiff, and one in which a jury ruled in favor of the defendant. 

By Firm

As stated above, by far the most active firm in this space is Johnson Becker who represent the plaintiffs in 61% of cases. As to who they have targeted, they do not target any company significantly more than the total distribution would suggest. Following them, the most active firms representing plaintiffs are Harlan Law and Milberg Coleman Bryson Phillips Grossman. They represent plaintiffs in 8% and 9% of cases respectively.

As to firms representing defendants, the most active have been Goldberg Segalla; Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith; and Shook, Hardy & Bacon. Goldberg Segalla has represented Sunbeam and Tristar. Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith have represented primarily Instant Brands. Shook, Hardy & Bacon have almost exclusively represented Sharkninja.