Family tries to reopen case in St. Louis firefighter's death

Monday, July 28, 2008

ST. LOUIS (AP) -- The family of a St. Louis firefighter who died while battling a blaze is trying to reopen a wrongful death lawsuit, alleging a company that makes safety gear withheld complaints about the equipment in the case.

Firefighter Rob Morrison's family settled its wrongful death suit against Survivair for between $2 million and $5 million in 2006. The deal was reached as the jury was deliberating about whether malfunctions with Survivair gear led to Morrison's death.

The Morrisons' lawyer, Dan Finney, is now trying to get the deal tossed out and the case reopened, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported in Monday's newspaper. He alleges the company did not disclose notice of failures that were identical to what happened to Morrison.

"We tried this case with them withholding serious, admissible, relevant and very damaging information," Finney said, according to a transcript of a hearing in May. "And they knew they had withheld it."

Finney said the information was uncovered in a similar suit over the death of a second firefighter, Derek Martin. In that case, after a trial in 2007, a jury awarded Martin's family $27 million.

The company, which changed its name to Sperian Fire in 2007, said in court documents that Finney is acting on "unfounded allegations" and "baseless claims." The company said the lawyer already had the records or could have uncovered them before the trial.

St. Louis Circuit Judge Donald McCullin is considering Finney's request for access to more records.

Martin and Morrison were killed May 3, 2002, in a fire at Gravois Refrigeration. Investigators blamed a series of accidents and mistakes. They noted firefighters were in the building without partners and smoke wasn't properly ventilated.

At issue in the Morrison suit was his Personal Alert Safety System (PASS) device, which should emit a distress alarm if a firefighter becomes immobile or triggers it manually. When Morrison became incapacitated, Finney said, the PASS didn't sound and searchers couldn't find him.

In the Martin case, jurors found that while his PASS worked, the breathing equipment failed as he searched for Morrison. Survivair blamed department procedures and denied problems with its equipment in both cases.

At the Martin trial, former Survivair president Jack Bell, now a top executive with the parent company, said he had no records of complaints from firefighters. "I've never heard of a PASS failing to alarm when it should," Bell testified.

But firefighters from California, Alabama, Washington and Georgia testified that they had complained about PASS and air mask problems.

Brad Wilmoth, one of the Martin family lawyers, said the legal team uncovered thousands of complaints that Survivair hadn't disclosed.

Jurors awarded the Martin family $12 million in actual damages and $15 million in punitive damages. They said Survivair acted "beyond negligence" in selling equipment it should have known was dangerous.

It was testimony in the Martin trial by Jim Beckstead, a regional manager for Sperian, that really caught Finney's attention. Beckstead told jurors that about 3,900 PASS devices had been returned out of about 67,000 sold. Finney said Survivair only turned over 220 complaints after he requested them and that none mentioned PASS devices that had failed.

So he has asked Judge McCullin to nullify the settlement and reopen the case. Finney, who tried the Morrison trial alone, is now being helped by three other lawyers.

No one mentioned that Survivair had warranty forms for repairs it had conducted, Finney claims, and Survivair never turned over such records when he asked for all relevant documents.

Lawyer Lynn Hursh, representing Survivair, said at the May hearing that the company never lied and provided Finney with records he sought. Hursh insisted that it wouldn't have mattered because the PASS failures did not match Finney's theory about how Morrison's failed.


Information from: St. Louis Post-Dispatch, http://www.stltoday.com

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: