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A St. Louis fire captain who weighed the ability to publicize a $6.5 million settlement offer against the potential for a larger jury award opted for the settlement. Mike Lebrun wants other firefighters to know that his compressed-air tank allegedly ran out without warning in a smoke-filled high-rise, leaving him with brain damage that ended his 19-year firefighting career. The defendant, Mine Safety Appliances Co. of Pittsburgh, has denied any liability for Lebrun’s injuries, which it blamed on improper equipment maintenance. Lebrun’s injuries occurred because — as he told a fire captain shortly after the incident — he ignored the warning chime on his air tank and re-entered the burning building, said Douglas K. McClaine, the company’s general counsel. Lebrun later denied hearing the tank chime. Mine Safety Appliances last week advised customers with air tanks like Lebrun’s to replace the bell’s screw with a new company-issued fastener to “address the unlikely event” of the chime becoming loose and failing to sound. That’s allegedly what had happened to Lebrun, 51, and to a Biloxi, Miss., firefighter who died in 1986, said one of Lebrun’s attorneys, Jamie L. Boock, an associate in the St. Louis firm of Simon, Lowe & Passanante. In addition, he said, two Memphis, Tenn., firefighters killed in 1994 were wearing air tanks with warning alarms that the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) later found to be malfunctioning. After Lebrun’s injury, NIOSH tests found that his warning bell was loose, muffling its chime, Boock said. McClaine said NIOSH tests cannot determine if a bell is inherently faulty or was damaged during recovery efforts. The plaintiff alleged Mine Safety Appliances knew as early as 1987 that warning bells on its breathing equipment weren’t operating reliably but chose not to alert consumers. Lebrun suffered severe smoke inhalation after his compressed-air supply was depleted during a rescue effort on the 21st floor of a smoke-choked apartment hallway. Fellow members of the St. Louis Fire Department found him unconscious in a janitor’s closet. He was hospitalized for 20 days and suffered brain injuries that impaired his short-term memory and concentration, Boock said. His suit claimed strict products liability and negligence. The case was headed to trial in June but settled during a marathon mediation session called at the defendant’s request. Lebrun v. Mine Safety Appliances Co., No. 002-07860 (St. Louis city Cir. Ct.). Had Mine Safety Appliances insisted on a confidential settlement, Lebrun would have gone to trial. “It was of the utmost importance to our client that they could talk about it,” Boock said. Lebrun “knew the only way other firefighters could be warned of the danger of this product was to be able to talk about it.” The defense chose to settle in part because of the unquestioning respect that rescue personnel have enjoyed since Sept. 11. “Just everywhere you turn, firefighters are heroes. … If you’re in a products liability lawsuit, it’s very difficult to attack the credibility of firefighters,” McClaine said. He noted that Lebrun’s deposition testimony contradicted statements he’d made after the fire saying he heard his warning bell chime. The defense was also concerned about the venue because of “that jurisdiction’s history of awarding excessive multimillion dollar judgments in cases of questionable merit,” a company statement said. Breathing units like Lebrun’s account for less than 3 percent of the company’s units in use, said spokesman Ben DeMaria. He would not say how many of those older units remain in operation but noted that the company sold its last single-screw models in 1993. Lebrun’s was made in 1990. He was injured in 1997, a year into a two-year grace period for fire protection gear to meet new standards that included the addition of a light to indicate a waning air supply. Mine Safety Appliances added that so-called “redundant” alarm in 1999, but it was not until this month that the company offered to retrofit older units.

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