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Campers' Families Sue Heater Company

Jan 1, 2007 | AP The warning is on the back of the Coleman Co., propane heaters: "For outdoor or well-ventilated construction use only. Never use inside house, camper, tent, vehicle or other unventilated or enclosed area."

The families of five people who were killed by carbon monoxide poisoning while camping in southwestern Washington's Lewis County this year say the bright orange labels weren't enough to prevent the deaths. In two federal lawsuits filed Thursday, they argued that the labels aren't clear about what "well-ventilated" means and that simple manufacturing changes could have saved the lives of their loved ones and at least 75 other people who have died using Coleman heaters around the country.

In one case, Mari Daniel, of Puyallup, is suing for wrongful death after her husband and father were killed during a hunting trip Sept. 15. They were using a Coleman 5045 PowerMate heater to warm the 28-foot trailer they were sleeping in; they had windows open while the heater was on, Campiche said. A third member of the hunting party survived.

In the other case, the guardian of 5-year-old Cody Ongpituk is suing because his father, mother and 13-year-old sister died in May after using the same model heater in the panel truck where they sometimes slept. The Ongpituks, of Seattle, were staying in Lewis County to sell their Thai food during a Memorial Day festival.

Coleman, based in Wichita, Kan., is a subsidiary of Jarden Corp. They declined to comment on the lawsuits.

Coleman no longer sells the model at issue in the lawsuits, but an estimated 1 million similarly designed Coleman heaters remain in use worldwide. The heaters have been manufactured since 1984; a precursor to the PowerMate model was called "Focus."

In West Palm Beach, Fla., a jury awarded $10 million to the family of an electrician and his stepson who died in 1999 when a Coleman Focus heater filled their camping tent with carbon monoxide.

Another couple died while camping in Lewis County in 2000 when their tent filled with carbon monoxide. Coleman settled that case for an undisclosed sum.

The two lawsuits seek damages for pain and suffering and lost wages, as well as punitive damages against Coleman.

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