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Man sues, claiming deadly furnace leak

A Lutz woman was killed and her fiance injured when carbon monoxide leaked into her mobile home.

By CHRISTOPHER GOFFARD

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 24, 2000


LUTZ -- A faulty propane-fueled furnace is responsible for killing a 58-year-old Lutz woman last year and causing brain damage to her 60-year-old fiance, according to a lawsuit filed Thursday in Pasco Circuit Court.

The lawsuit claims that a defect in a Coleman Presidential II furnace caused it to leak poisonous carbon monoxide into the mobile home of Geraldine Johnson on Jan. 7, 1999, resulting in her death five days later.

Johnson and her fiance, Wesley Newton, turned on the furnace on Jan. 7 to warm the house during a cold snap, said Newton's lawyer, Nicholas M. Athanason. Athanason said the colorless, odorless gas affected Johnson as she slept, while Newton, who had been watching TV, felt sick and went to the bathroom, where he collapsed.

"He can't smell there's a problem, and it attacks your system before you realize it," said Athanason, who is based in St. Petersburg.

One of Newton's co-workers, suspecting something was awry, broke the window to get inside and found the couple unconscious, according to a Pasco County Sheriff's Office report. Newton survived with brain damage and memory loss, his lawyer said.

The lawsuit names the Kansas-based Coleman Co., which built the furnace, and the California-based Fleetwood Enterprises Inc., which built the mobile home containing the furnace. Newton is seeking unspecified damages. "There's a laundry list of things Coleman did wrong in manufacturing the furnace and Fleetwood in installing it," Athanason said. He said the furnace had faulty metals and improperly positioned fans. "You basically had to be an expert to dismantle the furnace to discover the defect."

In 1988, the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission warned consumers of another type of Coleman mobile home furnace -- the Model 8600 Solar Pak produced before December 1971 -- in response to reports of carbon monoxide poisoning.

Coleman spokesperson Rocki Rockingham on Friday told the Times she was unaware of the current lawsuit. "I think it would be premature to comment," she said.

William Lear, lawyer for Fleetwood, also said he was unaware of the lawsuit and declined to comment.

- Staff writer Christopher Goffard covers courts in west Pasco County. He can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6236 or (800) 333-7505, ext. 6236. His e-mail address is goffard@sptimes.com.

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