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Thread: Missouri Firefighter's Family Awarded $12 Million

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    Missouri Firefighter's Family Awarded $12 Million

    Missouri Firefighter's Family Awarded $12 Million

    Updated: 09-19-2007 09:22:11 AM

    St. Louis Post-Dispatch (Missouri)

    St. Louis - Jurors awarded $12 million Tuesday to a St. Louis firefighter's family and will consider additional damages against the maker of breathing equipment they said killed him while fighting a blaze in 2002.

    The panel held the company, Survivair, 100 percent at fault in the death of Derek Martin, citing a faulty product and negligence. The St. Louis Fire Department continues to use the same equipment.

    Survivair could be ordered to pay much more because of aggravating circumstances - conscious disregard for the safety of others, the jurors said. They will decide on that amount beginning today after company officials testify about its financial outlook.

    The decision came in one afternoon of deliberations that capped a four-week trial in St. Louis Circuit Court.

    "Wow," said Fire Chief Sherman George when informed of the verdict. He said he would meet with the city counselor and director of public safety. "I'll talk to them and see what our options are."

    The trial turned on whether a faulty valve on an air mask was to blame for the death of Martin, as his widow claimed, or if department procedures were at fault, as the company said.

    Martin and fellow firefighter Robert Morrison, both 38, of Rescue Squad 1, died in a fire in a small commercial structure in the 2200 block of Gravois Avenue the night of May 3, 2002. What at first seemed to be a routine blaze delivered the department's first fatalities in nearly a quarter of a century.

    An earlier suit blamed Morrison's personal distress alarm, also made by Survivair, for failing to bring help when he became incapacitated. Martin died trying to save Morrison.

    Before a jury decided the Morrison case, Survivair reached a sealed settlement with his widow, Laura Morrison, that was reported to be worth $1 million to $5 million.

    Martin died after removing his mask and gloves while trying to clear the valve on his air mask, his family's lawyer argued in the current case. That valve was stuck when federal investigators examined it 10 days after the fire.

    Furthermore, Martin never would have needed to go after Morrison if Morrison's personal alarm had worked, attorney Jerry Schlichter said.

    He claimed the California-based Survivair, a subsidiary of a French company, knew about design flaws when it sold the masks to the Fire Department in the late 1990s.

    Lynn Hursh, an attorney for Survivair, argued that the deaths were based on procedural breakdowns: firefighters working inside individually, failing to vent heat and smoke from the building and missing a distress message over the radio.

    He also said Martin should have known to check the valve before trusting it and insisted a firefighter can still breathe with the valve stuck.

    Attorneys made their closing arguments Tuesday morning and the jury began deliberating after lunch. They asked to see the equipment at the heart of the case and requested a dictionary before returning their verdict about 5 p.m.

    The $12 million award compensates Martin's family for his death. The verdict was unanimous, though only nine of the 12 jurors needed to agree for a verdict.

    Any further judgment ordered by the jury - and there's no limit on that number - would be to punish the company and prevent it from similar action in the future. At least half of that amount would go to a state fund, with the rest going to Martin's family.

    While the Fire Department still uses the Survivair gear, the city recently asked for a refund so it can buy replacements. Because that may require drawn-out litigation, city officials will ask voters to approve a bond issue in February to help pay for new fire equipment, said Jeff Rainford, chief of staff for Mayor Francis Slay.

    "We don't want this to ever happen again," Rainford said.

    Survivair said in closing arguments that the masks where never shown to have caused Martin's death, and a company executive testified that he hadn't previously heard of any complaints about the masks.

    But firefighters called by Martin's family said the equipment was known to be faulty. One said the company was derisively nicknamed "Surprise Air" by some critics because firefighters never knew if the equipment would work. | 314-340-8253

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    Missouri Firefighter's Family Awarded $27 Million

    Missouri Firefighter's Family Awarded $27 Million

    Updated: 09-20-2007 09:21:08 AM

    St. Louis Post-Dispatch (Missouri)

    St. Louis - The maker of an air mask blamed for the death of a St. Louis firefighter must pay $15 million in punitive damages, a jury decided Wednesday, on top of $12 million in actual damages already awarded.

    The firefighters union said the findings added credibility to its call for the city to replace that model of self-contained breathing unit, which remains in use departmentwide.

    The one-two financial punch is a victory for firefighter safety, said Angela Martin, widow of Derek Martin. His death in a blaze in 2002 was blamed by the jury "100 percent" on a malfunction of his Survivair brand equipment.

    "They are not going to be able to walk away and do business as usual," said Angela Martin, who brought the suit in St. Louis Circuit Court. She said she had turned down settlement offers in favor of revealing the truth.

    Firefighters from at least half a dozen departments, from Georgia to California, testified in the trial about malfunctions of Survivair gear.

    "It was never about the money. It didn't matter to me," Martin said. "What mattered was that Survivair was going to be made responsible."

    Officials of Survivair, a California-based subsidiary of the French safety company Bacou-Dalloz, declined to comment Wednesday, citing pending legal issues. They are expected to appeal.

    Survivair previously paid a settlement, characterized only as from $1 million to $5 million, to the widow of firefighter Robert Morrison, who died separately in the same fire on May 3, 2002. She blamed his death on failure of a Survivair personal distress alarm after he became incapacitated.

    Martin died after taking off his Survivair mask to try to deal with a clogged valve, jurors found. He had been rushing into the burning commercial building, in the 2200 block of Gravois Avenue, to try to find the missing Morrison. Both were 38 and worked on Rescue Squad 1.

    Survivair denied blame and laid the deaths on faulty fire department procedures.

    Setting the stage for the punitive damages, jurors had said with their actual-damages verdict Tuesday that Survivair acted "beyond negligence" when it sold gear it should have known was dangerous.

    Plaintiff's attorney Jerry Schlichter had argued that Survivair knew about design flaws when it sold the masks to the St. Louis Fire Department in the late 1990s.

    The $12 million is jointly owed to Martin's family by Survivair and its corporate parent. The punitive damages were split $14 million against Survivair and $1 million against Bacou-Dalloz.

    By law, at least half the punitive damages go to the state's Tort Victims Compensation Fund, and the rest will be allocated by Circuit Judge Michael Calvin, who presided over the four-week trial. It could go to Martin's family.

    Several jurors told a reporter they hope their verdict forces the company to redesign the equipment.

    "People are more important," said juror Keith Ebberson, 48. "They need to put out a product that is going to be safe."

    City officials said they would meet this week to discuss their options for replacing the equipment. They already asked Survivair for a refund, and said voters would be asked to finance new fire equipment in a bond issue referendum in February.

    "I certainly hope that this message is loud and clear," said Chris Molitor, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 73. He said officials should act immediately.

    "We've been complaining for years about Survivair and wanting it replaced with something more reliable," Molitor said.

    On Wednesday, a financial executive from Bacou-Dalloz was called to court to testify about finances. He said Survivair brought in about $53 million last year, and Bacou-Dalloz had revenue of about $928 million.

    Schlichter, the lawyer, had urged punitive damages of $30 million to $90 million, saying, "The punishment must be something they feel."

    A Survivair attorney said the $12 million was enough to get the company's attention.

    Juror Emmery Jackson, 44, said the panel had picked a figure in the middle.

    "We wanted to be fair. But we wanted to see justice," Jackson said. "We wanted them to take heed and do something to help our firemen."

    John Ammann, a law professor at St. Louis University, said an appeal was certain, in which the companies might argue that the awards were excessive. | 314-621-5804

    'I certainly hope that this message is loud and clear.' Chris Molitor, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 73

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