Page last updated at 10:56 GMT, Monday, 26 April 2010 11:56 UK

Long battle for 'toxic sofa' victims ends with pay-out

By Nicola Pearson
BBC News

Yvonne Dalton's leg
Chemicals used to protect the sofas caused burns to customers

A judge at the High Court has ordered several High Street retailers to pay out up to £20m in compensation to customers who received chemical burns from their leather sofas.

Lawyers representing around 2,000 people believe it is the largest group consumer action in English legal history.

Insurers for Argos, Homebase, Walmsleys and some smaller companies have admitted liability for their customers' injuries and agreed to pay compensation claims.

Last month the court ruled that victims who bought their furniture from the now dissolved Land of Leather would not be in line for a pay-out.

Its insurers, Zurich, successfully argued that the company had breached the terms of its insurance policy, and therefore it did not need to pay out.

Every evening I was sat on the chair watching TV and then going to bed and waking up at 3am and my skin was burning. The only way I could stop it was to sit in a freezing cold shower
Jo Hill

It is estimated that 100,000 chemically-laden leather suites were sold on the High Street.

Some retailers later contacted customers to warn of a "health and safety issue" but were not explicit about the injuries that could be caused.

Customers who complained they had become ill were offered a full refund or an exchange, but so far there has been no national recall by trading standards officials.

The problems began in China. Sofa manufacturers had inserted sachets of the anti-fungal chemical dimethyl fumarate or DMF, to stop the furniture from going mouldy during storage in Asia.

'Not enough'

Unaware of the chemical's existence, retailers stocked the suites and sold them on to their customers.

In people's homes, the solid chemical changed into a gas, which burnt through victims' clothing and went on to their skin.

Last year, teaching assistant Jo Hill, 34, from Torpoint, Cornwall, developed a painful rash all over her body which turned into angry weeping sores.

For months she visited her GP and local hospital. But, like all the other victims, no-one had any idea it was her furniture which was causing her suffering.

As far as we're aware, no recall has taken place of any of the sofas
Richard Langton, lawyer
Russell, Jones and Walker

"Every evening I was sat on the chair watching TV and then going to bed and waking up at 3am and my skin was burning.

"The only way I could stop it was to sit in a freezing cold shower.

"When we found out it was the sofa which was causing this, I took it straight out of the front room, I stopped sitting on it, and then my skin just started to heal. Within a week or so it was much better."

In Plymouth, cafe owner Paula Brooks suffered severe blood poisoning and now has permanent nerve damage.

Yvonne Dalton, from Bristol, was in so much pain she was signed off work for two months.

Safety 'absolute priority'

Many of the victims are not celebrating at winning their compensation pay-out.

They say they wish they had not had to suffer their injuries or the related worry and stress in the first place.

Lawyers from Russell, Jones and Walker, which represents hundreds of victims, say the compensation deal is welcome, but is not enough.

They are insisting there must be a national recall of thousands of suites which contain the chemical.

"The EU issued a regulation, a directive, in May, saying that DMF had to be removed from all products - you could no longer sell products containing DMF and anything which was on the market, or had been sold, ought to be recalled," said Richard Langton, from the firm.

"As far as we're aware, no recall has taken place of any of the sofas."

Sofa
Chemicals used to protect the sofas caused burns

A spokesman for the Department for Business spokesman consumer safety was its "absolute priority".

"We would encourage any consumers who have concerns about their sofa to contact their local trading standards team straight away.

"The European Commission have put additional measures in place across Europe to ensure that swift action can be taken if any concerns are raised.

"Manufacturers and suppliers of consumer goods have a duty to ensure that their products are as safe as possible for consumers and Trading Standards organisations already have powers to act where they detect hazardous substances such as DMF, and are continuing to monitor the situation."



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SEE ALSO
20m pay-out for 'toxic sofas'
26 Apr 10 |  UK
Judge rejects 'toxic sofa' claims
18 Mar 10 |  England
Land of Leather in administration
12 Jan 09 |  Business


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