Motorola Sued for $145 Million Over Death of Houston Fire Captain

The widow of a Houston fire captain who was seriously injured in the Southwest Inn fire in 2013, and who died in 2017, has filed suit against Motorola Solutions, Inc. alleging deficiencies in the radio system contributed to her husband’s injuries and ultimately his death.

Jacki Dowling filed suit in Harris County District Court on February 18, 2019. Motorola had the case removed to federal court on February 21, 2019. The suit alleges that the injuries and subsequent death of Captain William Dowling were directly attributable to failures of a digital trunked radio system that Motorola provided for the Houston Fire Department just prior to the fire. Captain Dowling died on March 7, 2017.

The families of four other firefighters killed in the May 31, 2013 blaze sued Motorola in 2016. They were Robert Gamer, Anne Sullivan, Robert Bebee, and Capatain Matthew Renaud.

As alleged in the complaint:

  • On May 31, 2013, Captain William Dowling, deceased, sustained a massive brain injury rendering him mentally incompetent.
  • He sustained the permanent injury while engaged in firefighting and rescue efforts at the SW Inn Hotel in Houston, Texas.
  • His irreversible brain injury occurred when mission critical emergency radio equipment provided by defendant delayed rescuers from reaching him in time to prevent a substantial loss of oxygen to his brain when he was trapped inside the burning structure.
  • Captain Dowling’ s brain damage was catastrophic and permanent. Loss of oxygen to his brain left him with the mental capacity of a 5-6-year old child.
  • Captain Dowling’s brain injury and resulting damages were caused by defective, untested and faulty emergency radio devices supplied, manufactured, designed, marketed and sold by defendant Motorola.
  • Four other Houston firefighters (Bebee, Gamer, Renaud, and Sullivan) died in the same fire because of the same type delays caused by Motorola’s faulty radio equipment.
  • Instead of dying, Captain Dowling “survived” to live a horrible and excruciatingly painful four more years as a child trapped in a completely broken body.
  • Motorola marketed and sold the radio equipment to the City of Houston, Captain Dowling’ s employer, just weeks before the fire in question.
  • Motorola represented that its new digital trunk radio system was fit, reliable and suitable for the intended purpose of instantly communicating emergency radio messages.
  • Motorola claimed that when “seconds matter” its radios would dependably transmit needed rescue messages without unreasonable delay.
  • Captain Dowling believed in and relied on those representations prior to the fire. He bravely undertook his firefighting duties on the day of the fire believing that the defendant’s radios would reliably perform if he got into trouble. They did not!
  • Unknown to Captain Dowling, the Motorola digital radios on that day would prove to be anything but reliable. Indeed, the evidence shows that instead of the radios being reliable, the Motorola radio system actually blocked and prevented needed emergency transmissions to get through more than 339 times before Captain Dowling could be rescued from the building.
  • Such blocked transmissions caused a loss of up to 27 minutes of useless or unusable rescue time to reach and recover Captain Dowling from the burning structure.

The complaint is seeking damages against Motorola in excess of $125 million for the wrongful death of Captain Dowling ($25 million each for Jacki Dowling, Forrest Dowling, Faith Dowling, Rick Dowling and Mary Dowling), plus an addition $20 million for the pain and suffering he endured prior to his death. The complaint also seeks punitive damages against Motorola in addition to the $145 million.

Here is a copy of the complaint: Dowling v Motorola

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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