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JURY AWARDS $2.4 MILLION IN FATAL FIRE

May 20, 2000

Mobile Register

The Circuit Court lawsuit points to a gas heater in the 1997 death of Nettie Portis.

A Mobile County jury returned a $2.4 million verdict against a Mobile company accused by plaintiffs of failing to properly install a gas heater n the home of 92-year-old Nettie Portis, who died in a December 1997 fire.

The jury rendered the award Friday afternoon, after a weeklong trial before Mobile Circuit Judge Herman Thomas.

The plaintiff in the case was Harold Clarke, who is the administrator of Portis' estate. In 1998, Clarke sued Hall's Gas Appliance Co., which installed the heater; Mobile Gas Service Supply, which hired Hall's to install the heater; and Empire Comfort Systems, the heater's manufacturer.

According to court personnel, witnesses testified that prior to trial, Mobile Gas and Empire Comfort Systems paid a total of $425,000 to settle their portions of the case.

Portis died in the early morning of Dec. 27, 1997, after a fire ravaged her one-story home on 2755 College St. S near the Mobile-Prichard city line.

Mobile attorneys Joseph M. "Buddy" Brown Jr. and Greg Breedlove, with the firm Cunningham, Bounds, Yance, Crowder & Brown, represented the Portis' family in the case.

According to Brown, eight days before the fire, Hall's Gas Appliance installed "state-of-the-art unvented flame-fired room-heaters" in Portis' home. The plaintiffs' experts testified that Hall's failed to secure the 25-pound heater the wallboard in Portis' bedroom. Also, the wallboard was 25 percent thinner than prescribed by the manufacturer, Brown said.

Plaintiffs' experts testified that the top of the heater came loose from the wallboard, leaned forward, and pried the bottom away from the wall, Brown said. Brown explained that when the heater is functioning properly, heat is created in the middle of the appliance, the heat rises, and comes out the top of the heater. After the heater fell and settled, the bottom was higher than the top, Brown said. The heat generated in the middle rose out of the bottom of the heater, which contained all the gas tubing, he said his experts testified.

"The most compelling evidence came from Assistant (Mobile) Fire Marshal Larry Hansen, who continued to doggedly investigate the case for months and years after the fire occurred and continued to review additional evidence and materials as the civil case proceeded and he ultimately offered evidence that the heater was in fact the cause of the house fire," Brown said.

A forensics expert testified that Portis tried "to escape into her bathroom where he was found kneeling down next to her bathtub in an attempt to get into the water at the moment she died," Brown said.

Mobile attorney Thomas Galloway Jr., who led the defense, said that her argued during the trial that his client, company owner Robert Hall, had not improperly installed the heater. Hansen, the assistant fire marshal, only concluded within the past two weeks that the heater was the cause of the fire, Galloway said.

"Our regret for Mr. Hall is that we didn't convince the jury that he was free from fault," said Galloway. "He's very upset about the verdict, regardless of the amount."

Galloway said his client will consider an appeal.

"We're going to look at the issues that occurred during the trial and then decide what future action will be taken," he said.

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