Mo. firefighter's family awarded $12 million in suit

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

ST. LOUIS (AP) -- The family of a St. Louis firefighter who died battling a blaze in 2002 has been awarded $12 million in a suit against the maker of breathing equipment, and the jury on Wednesday was considering whether to award even more money.

Jurors on Tuesday decided the company, California-based Survivair, was at fault in the death of Derek Martin. The jury also determined that Survivair could be ordered to pay much more because of aggravating circumstances -- conscious disregard for the safety of others. Company officials on Wednesday were to testify about the firm's financial outlook.

At issue in the suit was whether a valve on Martin's air mask was faulty as his widow claimed, or if department procedures were at fault.

Martin and fellow firefighter Robert Morrison both died in the fire at a small commercial structure in May 2002. Both were 38.

"Wow," said Fire Chief Sherman George when informed of the verdict.

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.

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.

Jerry Schlichter, the attorney for Martin's family, claimed Survivair knew about design flaws when it sold the masks to the fire department in the late 1990s.

Lynn Hursh, an attorney for Survivair, said 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.

The St. Louis department still uses Survivair gear, but 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.

Information from: St. Louis Post-Dispatch,

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