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Firefighter’s family gets $12 million in his death

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.