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Waking from a nap in September 1999, Martha Brown found her apartment was sweltering and the lights were out. More upsetting, the medical device that fed a constant supply of oxygen to her asthma-wracked body had fallen silent. Brown, 58, frantically phoned her local utility company, only to learn that the power had been cut off because she owed $1,600. Though the electricity was turned back on a few hours after daughter Sydni Brown Branch paid a $300 installment on the bill, Branch claims the damage was done. “She said, ‘I don’t feel well, baby,’ ” Branch, 35, recalls. “I said, ‘Well, Momma, do you want to go to the hospital?’ And she said, ‘I’m just real tired.’ ”

Over the next few days Brown, who suffered from a variety of respiratory ailments, struggled with shortness of breath, mild seizures and rising blood pressure. Then on Sept. 26, she collapsed while reporting a severe asthma attack to 911. Found unconscious on the floor, Brown was rushed to a hospital. She never regained consciousness.

Branch and her brother William Brown Jr., 39, filed a lawsuit on Aug. 28 against Reliant Energy—formerly Houston Light & Power—alleging that the estimated 4-to 6-hour power gap led directly to Brown’s asthma attack and coma. “For a measly $300, HL&P put Martha Brown in harm’s way,” said Paul Waldner, the family’s lawyer. “For just $300 it took away most of her breath and, eventually, her life.”

Reliant claims Brown was warned just two days before the power was cut that she needed to pay her bill. Also, the company says a service rep received no answer when he knocked on the door the day he shut off her electricity. “While we do not want to minimize the sorrow Mrs. Brown’s survivors must feel at the loss of their mother,” a company spokeswoman said in a written statement, “the termination of Mrs. Brown’s electric service was done according to appropriate guidelines and was not the cause of her death.”

What’s not in dispute is that even though she was overcome by asthma and other ills, Brown was a fiercely independent spirit. “If she wanted to do something, she did it,” says longtime friend Beverly Krushall, 61. After high school, Brown, energetic and cheerful, married her childhood sweetheart William Brown, now 62, a towering 6’5″ letter carrier who had often dropped by the house she shared with her mother and seven sisters to play dominoes.

A self-taught typist, Brown, known as Doll to everyone, spent 27 years in the Houston Independent School District, working as a secretary until a job-related accident left her with a ruptured disc and the option of early retirement. Insisting on working, she returned as an attendance taker. But in 1997, two years after her husband was left a quadriplegic after a hit-and-run accident, her asthma grew so severe that she was forced to go on disability. “With all her health problems, she was vibrant—she took care of things,” says Branch. Even tethered to an oxygen machine the fiercely independent Brown fed and bathed her husband and changed his clothes. Branch, who says she and her brother were never told of the bill, now cares for her father.

On a fixed income in Houston’s oppressive summer heat, the Browns fell behind in their electric bill last year. But two technicians sent to shut off their power refused once they saw the ailing couple. Unfortunately, when Brown applied to an energy payment-assistance program, she was told that she and William did not qualify for critical electrical need because they were not so ill that they could not be moved from the house. “If, however, the medical situation worsens, please feel free to apply again,” stated the letter.

Ironically, Branch has for years volunteered an extra dollar on each power bill for the company program that helps pay the bill for seniors and disabled customers on a low, fixed income. “I thought I was helping people like my parents,” she says. “Now I’m wondering who receives these funds.”

Nick Charles

Ellise Pierce in Houston