Twenty Illinois Fire Departments Sued for Wrongful Death

The family of a man who died in a fire last year has filed suit against twenty-one Illinois fire departments and two chief officers claiming they failed to effect his rescue. Aric Evan Tashjian McClure died on August 4, 2017 in a fire that trapped him in a second floor apartment in Round Lake, Illinois. He was 33 years old.

According to news reports, firefighters responded to the scene just before 5 p.m. and the fire was extinguished by about 8:30 p.m. However, because the building was considered too dangerous to enter, McClure’s body was not recovered until the following morning.

McClure’s estate filed the 140-page 52-count complaint in Lake County Circuit Court on August 2, 2018, just before the one year anniversary of the fire. Named in the suit as defendants are twenty-one fire departments, MABAS Division 4, Fire Chief Greg Formica and Fire Marshal Tony Breuscher of the Greater Round Lake Fire Protection District, the building’s owner Scott Gothann, and Gothann’s son-in-law, Matthew Sheppard. Gothann and Sheppard were reportedly were making plumbing repairs to the building when the fire broke out.

Here are the twenty-one departments:

  1. Greater Round Lake Fire Protection District,
  2. Antioch Fire Department,
  3. Highland Park Fire Department,
  4. Lincolnshire-Riverwoods Fire Department,
  5. Town of Salem Fire/Rescue,
  6. Buffalo Grove Fire Department,
  7. Countryside Fire Protection District,
  8. Libertyville Fire Department,
  9. Grayslake Fire Protection District,
  10. Barrington Countryside Fire Protection District,
  11. Gurnee Fire Department,
  12. Lake Forest Fire Department,
  13. Lake Villa Fire Protection District,
  14. Lake Zurich Fire and Rescue Department,
  15. Mundelein Fire Department,
  16. Newport Fire Protection District,
  17. Wauconda Fire Protection District,
  18. Waukegan Fire Department,
  19. McHenry Township Fire Protection District,
  20. Nunda Rural Fire Protection District,
  21. Spring Grove Fire Protection District

The suit alleges wrongful death and negligence. Quoting from the complaint:

  • In violation of and conscious disregard for its basic training and standard operating procedures, with knowledge that Plaintiff’s decedent, Aric Evan Tashjian McClure, had not been located and might still be in the burning Subject Building, this defendant failed to assess and investigate the area of the Subject Building where Plaintiff’s decedent, Aric Evan Tashjian McClure, would most likely be located and was last seen, which was his second-story apartment;
  • In violation of and conscious disregard for its basic training and standard operating procedures, this Defendant consciously disregarded the numerous and repeated statements by neighbors, from the decedent’s mother, Beatrice Charmian Tashjian, and other witnesses, that Plaintiff’s decedent was unaccounted for, was last seen in his apartment and believed to still be trapped in his apartment on the second-story of the Subject Building, which was on fire;
  • In violation of and conscious disregard for its basic training and standard operating procedures, and with knowledge and information that Plaintiff’s decedent was likely still located inside the burning Subject Building, this Defendant failed to perform an adequate primary search of the Subject Building, and particularly the second story apartment rented by Plaintiff’s decedent;
  • In violation of and conscious disregard for its basic training and standard operating procedures, and with knowledge and information that Plaintiff’s decedent was likely still located inside the burning Subject Building, this Defendant failed to perform a search of Plaintiff’s decedent’s second floor apartment from the exterior of the building by extending available ladders up to one or both of the second-story exterior windows, which provided direct access to the apartment occupied by Plaintiff’s decedent;
  • In violation of and conscious disregard for its basic training and standard operating procedures, and with knowledge and information the Plaintiff’s decedent was likely still located inside the burning Subject Building and specifically in his second-story apartment, this Defendant failed to search for Plaintiff’s decedent from outside the building by extending available ladders up to one or both of the exterior windows to his second-story apartment, by breaking the windows and using axle handles, pick poles and other equipment to sweep the apartment floor to search for Plaintiff’s decedent;
  • In violation of and conscious disregard for its basic training and standard operating procedures, this defendant intentionally, consciously, and recklessly completely disregarded the direct requests and pleas of Plaintiff decedent’s mother, Beatrice Charmian Tashjian, to put a ladder up to the exterior window of Aric’s second-story bedroom where Tashjian advised this Defendant and others that she had last seen Aric, and that he was taking a nap, and that she believed he was still in his bedroom, which was readily accessible from the exterior of the building by ladder at the time she requested that this Defendant search for her son from the exterior of the building; and
  • In violation of and conscious disregard for its basic training and standard operating procedures, with knowledge and information that Plaintiff’s decedent could not be located and more likely than not was still in the Subject Building, this Defendant failed to conduct a search of the entire building before leaving the scene on August 4, 2017.

The attorney for the estate, Ronald F. Wittmeyer, Jr., provided the following statement:

  • I fully support the courageous work that firefighters do, but we as citizens I believe also have a right to expect that if a building we are in catches fire, that our fire department will come and do its best to try to rescue us from the burning building, not just spray water on the fire, and then go home for the night. Aric McClure’s body was not even discovered until the next morning when the fire department returned to the scene.  And that was despite his Mother telling any firefighter who would listen during the fire the night before that she thought her son was still sleeping in his second floor apartment, where she had left him an hour earlier.

Here is a copy of the complaint: McClure v. Greater Round Lake Fire Prot District et al

Incidentally, one of the strongest defenses a fire department would have in a case like this, the public duty doctrine, was eliminated in Illinois in 2016 by what I consider to be a shortsighted decision handed down by the Illinois Supreme Court. Here is more on that decision. Note this is the second fire related suit I located this week naming an Illinois fire department as a defendant over a fire death.

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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