Firefighter receives $6.5 million settlement for faulty oxygen

Saturday, July 20, 2002

ST. LOUIS, Mo. -- Crawling on his hands and knees down the smoke-filled hallway of a burning senior citizen highrise, St. Louis firefighter Mike LeBrun's oxygen tank suddenly, without warning, went empty.

The emergency alarm never sounded to alert LaBrun that his breathing apparatus was about out of air. The malfunction caused brain damage for LaBrun, who is in his 40s, a 19-year veteran of the department.

Now, LeBrun has received a $6.5 million out-of-court settlement from the company that manufactures the tanks for firefighters throughout the nation, the legal publication Missouri Lawyers Weekly reported Friday.

The breathing device is made by Mine Safety Appliances Co. of Pittsburgh. The company's attorney, Dan Donahue, would not comment other than to confirm the settlement.

The payout is the largest product liability settlement in Missouri this year, Missouri Lawyers Weekly said. The settlement was reached May 9.

"I don't think the size of the settlement is out of proportion to the quality of the case we had," said Jamie Boock, LeBrun's attorney. "It's a lot of money. Mike suffered permanent brain damage and he and his wife, Carol, have two children.

"They would have preferred to have this all be confidential but they knew warning other firefighters was important," Boock said. The LeBruns have declined to discuss the case.

LeBrun was fighting an eight-alarm fire at a 27-story nursing home on Oct. 12, 1998. In a lawsuit filed in St. Louis Circuit Court, LeBrun, who was a captain, said the alarm bell that warns a firefighter he is low on oxygen never sounded.

According to Boock, LeBrun and another firefighter entered the 21st floor to try and find an individual believed to be there.

"As they were proceeding on the floor on their hands and knees in zero visibility, Mike was leading and the other firefighter was following," Boock said. "At some point, the other firefighter became aware he was low on oxygen. He tapped Mike on the shoulder and said, 'Look, I'm low on oxygen. We need to get out."'

But before LeBrun was able to exit, he ran out of air, Boock said. Frantic, he searched for a door and entered what turned out to be a janitor's closet, where he became entangled in wires. LeBrun was later found by another firefighter.

LeBrun's breathing apparatus was sent to the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and an investigation revealed the alarm bell was loose.

Boock said LeBrun alleged the apparatus was defective because the bell was loose and such a vital lifesaving devise should have a back-up alarm.

After the 1987 death of a Biloxi, Miss., firefighter, NIOSH requested that Mine Safety Appliances issue an advisory on its breathing units, but the company declined to do so, Missouri Lawyers Weekly said.

An inspection, including a check of the alarm on oxygen tank used by the Biloxi firefighter, revealed what NIOSH reported as a "problem (that) may be common in the fire service."

Mine Safety modified the alarm system in 1999 to include a back-up warning. But during deposition, Mine Safety executives acknowledged the firm has never attempted to advise users of problems with the devise.

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: