LODD Widow Claims Georgia Fire Chief Responsible for Wrongful Death

The widow of a firefighter killed in a collapse at a house fire in Waycross, Georgia in 2013, claims the fire chief and the building’s owner are responsible her husband’s wrongful death.

Diane Little, the widow of Fire Lieutenant David Jeffrey Little, filed the lawsuit last week in Ware County state court naming the City of Waycross, Fire Chief David E. Eddins, and Ruben Guinovart as defendants.

Lt. Little, 50, died on December 15, 2013 at a fire in a vacant building owned by Guinovart. According to the US Fire Administration web site:

As another crew overhauled the interior of the structure, Lieutenant Little took a new firefighter assigned to his crew back inside of the building to provide some educational pointers about the fire and the structure. A ceiling collapse occurred. The firefighter was able to escape but Lieutenant Little was trapped in the debris.

Two men, Zachery Jacob Thompson, 17, and Ronnie Joseph Cranford, 23, have been charged with arson and murder for setting the fire. They were not named in the suit.

According to the complaint, the city had condemned the property back in 2005, but neither Guinovart nor the city took any steps to repair or remove the structure. That part of the lawsuit is relatively routine in cases like this and gave grounds to the allegations of negligence and premises liability.

However, the additional allegations contained in the complaint are anything but routine. From the complaint:

  • Around June of 2012 two Waycross firefighters including Bill Jordan and Roger Summerall filed complaints against Defendant Eddins, Fire Chief for the City of Waycross for his disparate treatment in allowing employees to apply for jobs.
  • Firefighter Jordan was subsequently re-hired but the personal grudge of Defendant Eddins against both he and Firefighter Summerall remained.
  • On December 15, 2013, the house located at 1005 Isabella Street, Waycross, Georgia caught on fire and the City of Waycross Fire Department responded to the blaze.
  • Upon arrival at the scene, a sweep of the premises indicated no persons inside the home.
  • Hours later while the house was still on fire, Defendant Eddins forcefully ordered Roger Summerall into the burning home if he wanted to keep his job.
  • Defendant Eddins knew there was noone in the home and knew there was no need for the firefighters to enter the home. This action by Defendant Eddins was with malice and as retaliation for the complaint filed against him.

The complaint alleges Chief Eddins and Waycross violated the First Amendment rights of certain firefighters and in retaliating against them, caused plaintiff damages that are actionable under 42 U.S.C. §§ 1983 and 1988. Here is the exact allegation:

As a direct and proximate cause of Defendants’ retaliatory actions and violations of the First Amendment rights of multiple firefighters, Plaintiff suffered severe and substantial losses.

The complaint also claims that the retaliation is actionable under Georgia’s whistleblower statute, O.C.G.A. § 45-1-4. It is unclear from the complaint how retaliation against a third party would be actionable by the plaintiff in this case under either 42 U.S.C. § 1983 or O.C.G.A. § 45-1-4. In any event, Mrs. Little is seeking damages for wrongful death, costs and attorneys fees.

Here is a copy of the complaint: Complaint

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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