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.

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