Patrick Bellis of Hancock has sued the manufacturer of a cooking spray in federal court alleging negligence. Bellis was working in the kitchen of Pat's Pizza in Bar Harbor on July 10, 2017, when an aerosol can of Sysco cooking spray suddenly exploded engulfing him in flames. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik | BDN

Patrick Bellis was working in the kitchen of Pat’s Pizza in Bar Harbor on July 10, 2017, when a can of cooking spray exploded without warning and changed his life forever.

“I was doing my job, like I’d done for many years. I was making a sandwich,” said Bellis, 35, of Hancock. “The next thing I knew, I was engulfed in a fireball.”

Patrick Bellis of Hancock claims that this can exploded and caused a fire on July 10, 2017, that engulfed him in flames in the kitchen where he was working. Bellis suffered third-degree burns over 30 percent of his body. He has sued the can’s makers alleging its design was defective. Courtesy of Patrick Bellis. Credit: Courtesy of Patrick Bellis

Bellis, who was dressed in a T-shirt and shorts, suffered third-degree burns over 30 percent of his body, mostly on his legs, arms, hands and neck. He spent more than a month in the burn unit at Maine Medical Center in Portland, where he underwent grafts using skin from his upper arms and legs to repair the burn damage. He was out of work for six months.

Earlier this year, the former cook sued DS Containers Inc. of Batavia, Illinois, which designed the can; ConAgra Brands Inc. of Omaha, Nebraska, the maker of the cooking spray that used the cans; and Sysco Northern New England Inc. of Westbrook, which distributed the product in Maine to commercial kitchens. The lawsuit, which appears to be the first in the state over an exploding can of cooking spray, is pending in Hancock County Superior Court in Ellsworth.

Bellis’ attorney, Michael Bigos, of Lewiston and Bangor, alleged in the complaint that the design of the aerosol can, which had a domed bottom with U-shaped vents, was defective. The buildup of pressure inside the can causes an eversion of the dome, leading the vents to open and release the highly flammable propellant, a combination of butane and propane, that combusts when near a heat source.

The lawsuit also claims that ConAgra had been sued prior to Bellis’ being injured over similar incidents in home and commercial kitchens but did not recall the product or issue warnings about its explosive nature. Most of the suits involved exploding cans of the cooking spray PAM or its generic equivalent.

Attorneys for the defendants did not immediately respond to a request for comment. In filings in similar suits in federal courts in the Northeast, attorneys for ConAgra denied allegations similar to Bellis’.

“ConAgra expressly denies that the PAM aerosol canister was in a defective condition due to any act, omission, design or practice of ConAgra,” the company said in answer to a complaint filed in U.S. District Court in Connecticut.

The warning on cans of PAM states that they should not be kept near a heat source or where the temperature might reach 120 degrees or more, ConAgra said.

The former Maine cook is seeking unspecified damages. Bigos said that his client’s medical bills, which were paid for by Maine Employers’ Mutual Insurance Company, also known as MEMIC, reached the six figures. If Bellis had not filed suit, MEMIC would have done so to recoup its costs, which is standard practice, according to the lawyer.

Patrick Bellis has sued the manufacturer of a cooking spray in federal court alleging negligence. Bellis was working in the kitchen of Pat’s Pizza in Bar Harbor on July 10, 2017, when an aerosol can of Sysco cooking spray suddenly exploded engulfing him in flames. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik / BDN Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik | BDN

Bellis’ lawsuit is one of at least three dozen filed in state and federal courts around the nation, according to The Counter, a news website that follows the nation’s food industry. The website also reported in September that the aerosol can has been redesigned to eliminate the vents.

The aerosol spray can was redesigned with the vents in 2011 for Reddi Whip, whipped cream propelled from the can by carbon dioxide, which is not flammable, according to Bigos. It later was used for cooking spray.

“We believe they wanted to reduce the risk of an explosion by letting it vent,” the lawyer said. “But letting it vent makes it more dangerous because if the venting comes in contact with an open flame or ignition force it explodes at a much, much lower threshold than it was designed to.”

As a result of the accident, Bellis said his life has changed dramatically. After working for much of his adult life as a cook, he now is a customer service representative for OTELCO, an internet service provider with offices in Bangor. He still must be careful not to expose his skin grafts to the sun, and he must use moisturizer often.

Patrick Bellis of Hancock has sued the manufacturer of a cooking spray in federal court alleging negligence. Bellis was working in the kitchen of Pat’s Pizza in Bar Harbor on July 10, 2017, when an aerosol can of Sysco cooking spray suddenly exploded engulfing him in flames. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik / BDN Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik | BDN

“You’re not going to see me in shorts and a T-shirt again,” he said. “I don’t go to a lake to swim any more. My outdoor activity is very limited and I always wear long pants and a long-sleeved shirt.”

Bellis said that he believes the companies that made the can, the cooking spray and its propellant and distributed it in Maine should be held responsible for his injuries.

“I had done about a decade’s worth of kitchen work before this and it was never made apparent that this [can] is essentially a flame thrower,” he said. “Anyone who works with this product should be fully aware of what this design is capable of doing.”