Houston Sued for $1 Million Over Drowning Deaths

The City of Houston is facing a wrongful death suit by the family of an elderly couple who drown during a botched flood-water rescue in 2015. The children of Jack and Shirley Alter filed suit in Harris County Court accusing the city of negligence in its attempt to rescue the couple during a major flooding event over the Memorial Day holiday in 2015.

Houston received 11 inches of rain in an 8-hour period, resulting in massive flooding. The Alters, both in their 80s, were in a Houston Fire Department rescue boat being ferried to safety when the craft struck a submerged object, and through some unfortunate circumstances capsized. Here is a copy of the investigative report on the incident: HFD_Report_colorrev-2

The Alters were wearing Type II personal flotation devices, but were unable to remain afloat given the current. According to the lawsuit:

  • The firefighters that operated HFD rescue boats were provisioned with and always wore Type V Life Jackets.
  • Type II PFDs are not intended for use in swift water.
  • Type V Life Jackets are intended for use in swift water.

The Houston Chronicle reported that the suit attributes the deaths to the city’s cost cutting efforts. The investigation attributed the deaths to a number of factors including an unprecedented weather event, overwhelming demand for service, and crew fatigue (personnel had been rescuing people for 8 hours without a break). Among the recommendations were additional training that meets NFPA 1006 and 1670, better equipment, and improved communications.

More on the story.

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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