Mobile Gas, landlord and men who worked on furnace ordered to pay $7 million judgment

Staff Reporter - Press Register

A Mobile jury has awarded a Chickasaw woman more than $7 million after she and her three children became ill and her mother died from carbon monoxide poisoning caused by a faulty furnace in 2004.

The verdict, which went against Mobile Gas Service Corp. and two other defendants, was delivered to Circuit Judge Charles Graddick on June 22, after a two-week trial and a day-and-a-half of deliberations.

The defendants will appeal.

The wrongful death suit was brought by Rosa Robinson and her family against Mobile Gas; the Robinsons' one-time landlord, Tyrone Wilson; and Robert Harris.

Harris and Wilson, the Robinsons' attorneys said, fired up the furnace.

Officials said Harris is serving a prison term for a cocaine conviction and was not at the trial.

Jurors decided that a fourth defendant -- an area heating and air conditioning company that once employed Harris but knew nothing of his work at the Robinson home and didn't authorize it -- was not culpable in the mishap.

Mobile attorneys Skip Finkbohner and Bobo Cunningham argued that Mobile Gas should not have supplied fuel to the furnace that the gas company itself had already red-tagged as faulty.

Carbon monoxide is a colorless, odorless, toxic gas that, when breathed, prevents the blood from carrying oxygen. A victim can essentially suffocate.

According to Finkbohner, the story began in 1999, long before the Robinsons took occupancy, when gas company officials declared that the water heater and the gas furnace at the home were not up to standards: the water heater rested too close to the floor and was a fire hazard; the furnace was also labeled a possible hazard.

Then, in June 2004, the Robinsons moved into the modest rental property on Fourth Avenue in Chickasaw.

The gas company supplied the gas but tagged the appliances again, while reiterating the concerns expressed five years earlier, Finkbohner said.

Mobile Gas' fatal flaw, Finkbohner suggested, was supplying gas to the property at all in light of those concerns.

Mobile Gas spokesman Wes Phillips said Tuesday that the company inspects all appliances prior to activating gas service.

"In this case," Phillips said, "we identified a hazardous condition in the furnace. We turned off the gas to the furnace and red-tagged it as dangerous. We instructed the customer not to use the furnace until repairs had been made. The customer testified at trial that she understood our warning and did not use the furnace until the landlord and a third party contractor advised her that it was safe to use."

At trial, the Robinsons' side argued that this was the next fatal miscue: Wilson, the landlord, and Harris re-engaging the furnace, despite the warnings.

Six months had passed since the Robinsons moved in, according to testimony, but within hours of the furnace being reactivated during a cold December night, they were overcome by the dangerous fumes the furnace produced.

All went to the hospital. Harriet Robinson, 78, died.

Robinson's side asked for $25 million, Finkbohner said, and at one point, the gas company offered $100,000 to settle the case.

The jury verdict was $7.15 million, the attorney said, including compensatory and punitive damages, spread out among the three remaining defendants, with the gas company and the landlord bearing the bulk of the burden.

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