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A federal jury in Miami ordered Wichita, Kan.-based Coleman Co. to pay a Lake Worth, Fla., woman $10.1 million in damages in connection with a malfunctioning propane heater that killed her husband and teenage son. Pedro Covas, an electrician for the city of West Palm Beach, Fla., and his son Rolando, a 16-year-old high school sophomore, died in November 1999 on a hunting and camping trip in Perry, about 50 miles southeast of Tallahassee. Pedro Covas apparently brought a Coleman Focus-5 heater into their unventilated tent and left it running while they slept, according to Minnetonka, Minn.-based attorney Mark Stageberg, who represented Pedro Covas’ widow, Flora Covas. The heater allegedly malfunctioned, filling the tent with deadly carbon monoxide gas that killed the father and son. Flora Covas filed a product liability suit against Coleman in June 2000. After a nine-day trial before U.S. District Judge Joan A. Lenard, the jury on June 23 found the Coleman Co. 75 percent negligent for the death of Pedro Covas and his son. The jury found the father 20 percent liable, and his son 5 percent liable. Jurors awarded Flora Covas $4 million for past and future pain and suffering caused by the loss of her son, and $1.5 million for the loss of her husband. In addition, Pedro Covas’ two surviving sons, who were 3 and 8 at the time of their father’s death, were awarded just under $4 million for the loss of their father. The remaining $1 million was awarded to cover the loss of Pedro Covas’ financial support to his family. The Coleman Co. was represented by Mark F. Bideau, a shareholder at Greenberg Traurig in West Palm Beach. Bideau said he was “disappointed” at the outcome of the trial, and that the verdict would be appealed. A Coleman spokeswoman also said an appeal was planned. Ann Walden, reading from a statement, said the company “is confident the appellate court will carefully review the issues and reach a different conclusion.” Started in the early 1900s, the Coleman Co. is perhaps the most recognized brand name in camping equipment, such as propane lanterns and stoves. The company has more than 2,000 employees worldwide. Coleman, which was acquired by Jarden Corp. in January, earned more than $800 million in revenues last year, according to Jarden’s most recent annual report. The company was at the center of the highly publicized fraud trial in Palm Beach Circuit Court earlier this year pitting New York financier Ronald O. Perelman against investment bank Morgan Stanley. Perelman alleged that Morgan Stanley defrauded him when it convinced Perelman in 1998 to accept millions of shares of stock in Sunbeam as partial payment for selling the camping gear company. Sunbeam, also bought by Jarden Corp., went bankrupt in 2001, making the stock worthless. Perelman won a final judgment of $1.58 billion. The Coleman Co. manufactured several versions of Focus heaters. The number after the Focus name indicated how many BTUs of heat the device could produce. Stageberg, a solo practitioner, got involved in the Covas case after representing the families of two Minnesota ice fishermen who suffered carbon monoxide poisoning using the same line of Coleman heater. One of the men died, the other suffered brain damage. Stageberg said he knows of at least 45 people who have died as a result of problems with the Focus heater but was only allowed to introduce nine Focus-related deaths into evidence as part of the Covas trial. Although they are no longer manufactured, Stageberg said, as many as a million Focus heaters are still in use. “For the benefit of the general population, this company clearly needs to do a recall of these dangerous propane heaters, rather than fighting every wrongful death piece of litigation tooth and nail,” Stageberg said. Stageberg won a similar wrongful death suit involving a Focus heater in Oregon in 1999 and lost one in Utah in 2003. He has an ongoing lawsuit against Coleman in another Focus heater case in Montana.

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