Dekalb County Fire Rescue Sued for Fire Death

In what should be of no surprise to anyone, the family of Ann Bartlett filed suit yesterday against Dekalb County Fire Rescue. Bartlett died on January 24, 2010 when the crews that were dispatched to her home for a reported fire, failed to find any fire or smoke in the area, and left the scene without checking the house – only to be called back hours later when the house was well involved.

Named in the suit were Dekalb County Fire Rescue, William J. Greene, Lesley Clark, Tony Motes, Sell Caldwell III, and Bennie Paige. Greene and Motes were acting officers, Caldwell was a captain, and Clark was a battalion chief, all of whom were dispatched on the initial alarm. Paige was the acting shift commander that night. All five named defendants were terminated by the fire department in the aftermath of the fire.

The suit alleges negligence in the performance of a ministerial act; willful negligence and malfeasance; and abandonment by the fire crews. It seeks punitive damages because the conduct constituted “willful misconduct, malice, fraud, wantonness, oppression, or that entire want of care which would raise a presumption of conscious indifference to the consequences”.

The family also asked the court to order an independent third party to evaluate and review the fire department’s policies and procedures to ensure that such an event does not occur again.

Here is a copy of the complaint. Download DekalbComplaint

One interesting aspect of this case involves the advisability of being forthcoming when you know you have made a mistake. Old school lawyers shudder at the thought of admitting liability, instead preferring to deny, stall, delay and force a plaintiff to prove every aspect of their case. The more modern approach recognizes that in many cases it is better to admit wrongdoing up front. The modern approach was taken by Dekalb officials who from nearly the beginning accepted responsibility for the blunders that led to Mrs. Bartlett’s death. Only time will tell if “honesty is the best policy” is truly the best policy when it comes to liability.

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.

  • John K. Murphy

    Curt – how would the Public Duty Doctrine be utilized in the defense of the County and are the firefighter covered under a Vicarious Liability provision or standard as they were employees of the County at the time of the incident?

  • John K. Murphy

    Look at:
    CITY OF ROME et al. v. JORDAN et al., 263 Ga. 26, 426 S.E.2.d 861 (1993)

  • John
    Great question. The public duty rule could provide liability protection to the defendants in this case provided (1) Georgia recognizes it and (2) that no special duty existed between the defendants and Mrs. Bartlett.
    Under basic negligence law a defendant must owe a duty of care to an injured party for there to be liability. The public duty rule holds that a fire department (or other governmental entity) does not owe a duty of care to members of the public. A duty arises only when a special relationship exists between between the parties, with the governmental actors providing some sort of affirmative assurances, and the victim relying on those assurances.
    Generally, responding to someone’s request for help is not enough to create a special duty, but ultimately it will turn on the facts… as my Dad used to say – hard cases make bad law.

  • Laurie A. Johnson

    Do you know where I can find the actual origin and cause determination report from the investigators. I can find all sorts of reports, but not that report. I’m doing a project for school and am interested in this case because of Mrs. Bartlett’s claim of setting her house on fire with “the thing for my nose”. All the other matter going on with the case does not really fit into my Fire Investigation and Cause Determination class, although it is an extremely sad state of affairs.

  • Laurie
    Depending on how much time you have, you may want to contact the FD and see if they will release it to you. You could file an open records request but that may take 30 days or so. Other options are to check with the local newspaper reporter who have been covering the story (follow the web links – the writer’s email address is often at the bottom of the article.


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