Families of Houston LODDs Sue Motorola and Scott

The families of three Houston firefighters killed in the 2013 Southwest Inn fire have filed another wrongful death lawsuit, this time naming Motorola and Scott Safety as defendants.

The suit filed Monday in Harris County District Court accuses Motorola and Scott of negligence, gross negligence and product liability for selling products that are dangerously defective and contain design defects. The families have wrongful death suits pending against the owners and operators of the Southwest Inn.

Joining the families’ in filing the suit is Houston firefighter Robert Yarborough who was injured in the blaze.

Besides Motorola and Scott, the suit names two Texas companies, Access Data Supply, Inc. and CTS Consolidated Telecom Services, LLC, who assisted Motorola with Houston’s digital trunked 800 mHz radio system.

Among the allegations:

  • On May 31 , 2013, Plaintiffs Robert Bebee, Robert Gamer, and Anne Sullivan died and Robert Yarbrough was severely injured when parts of a burning structure variously fell on them.
  • They entered the burning structure confident that if they got in trouble they could radio for help to be immediately assisted.
  • The radio devices they trusted were designed, manufactured and/or marketed by one or more of the defendants, and/or components of the radio system were designed, manufactured and/or marketed by one or more of the defendants.
  • They did not know that the radios they trusted would betray them or fail under the very purposes for which they were intended.
  • Unknown to the firefighters their Motorola Solutions System and Scott Safety system radios and components were defective and/or deficient in performance which delayed or prevented instructions to firefighters or cut them off entirely without notification to the users.
  • Numerous other failures of the system caused delays in both rescue as well as evacuation from the building.
  • Motorola Solutions sold an approximately $140,000,000 digital radio system to the City of Houston for use by the Houston Fire Department. That system was allegedly designed to be suitable for use in situations such as the Southwest Inn fire in question in this case.
  • The system is believed to have been implemented in April 2013. However, at the time of its implementation, despite representations by Motorola Solutions as to its suitability for use, it was unsuitable for the anticipated, foreseeable and actual fire use. Its failures included the following:
    • Excessive “bonks” when a firefighter was shut out of the system and unable to access the system – 339 times in the first thirty minutes of the fire in question;
    • Firefighters were shut out of the system 256 times after the collapse of the roof and when rescue efforts commenced;
    • Digital Delays between the time a firefighter would speak and the time that the message was actually sent and received by another user;
    • Excessive “quick keys” when a radio microphone was accidentally struck causing the Talk Group on the frequency to be “frozen” for 3-4 seconds;
    • Digital Cliffs occurring suddenly, and without warning, when the radios would go out of range although the person would be only a few feet away;
  • The Defendants were aware of the problems with the system and despite this knowledge marketed and sold the products representing that they were fit and suitable for use in fire conditions such as those at issue in this case.

Here is a copy of the complaint: Bebee v Motorola

Here is the story about the earlier suit against the Southwest Inn’s owners and operators.

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.
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