Suit By Property Owners Over Michigan LODD Fire Will Proceed

A Michigan fire department is facing a second lawsuit over the line-of-duty death of a firefighter in 2013. The suit was brought by property owners who claim they were unfairly targeted as arson suspects in an effort to divert attention from the mistakes that led to the death of Wayne-Westland firefighter Brian Woehlke. In a ruling issued earlier today, the US District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan refused to dismiss the suit.

George and Mary Marvaso ran a restaurant, Marvaso’s Italian Grill, as well as an adjacent establishment called Electric Stick, in Westland. Their son, George F. Marvaso, and daughter, Sunday Gains, worked at Electric Stick.

On May 8, 2013, a fire damaged both businesses. During the course of the fire, FF Woehlke ran out of air, was trapped inside the building, and perished. The cause of death was smoke inhalation. The cause of the fire was initially listed as undetermined.

The fire department requested Michigan State Police to conduct a cause and origin investigation into the fire. As part of that investigation the state police obtained search warrants for the Marvasos’ home. According to the complaint, the investigation was characterized as a “homicide investigation.” There were no arrests nor has anyone been charged in connection with the fire.

Meanwhile, Michigan OSHA investigated FF Woehlke’s death and cited the Wayne-Westland Fire Department for a number of safety violations, including a lack of written policies and procedures for ICS,  accountability, and two-in two-out. The fines totaled $3500. NIOSH also investigate the incident and issued eleven recommendations. Here is a copy of the NIOSH report.

The Marvasos filed suit in March of 2016 claiming that Fire Chief Michael J. Reddy, Jr., Fire Marshal John Adams, and Chief Reddy’s father, Michael J. Reddy, Sr. (a former fire chief) conspired to blame them for the fire in an effort to divert attention from their own responsibility for the death of FF Woehlke. The suit alleged the conspiracy violated their Constitutional Rights under color of law. That suit was dismissed in November 2016 without prejudice.

The Marasos refiled the suit in August of 2018. The defendants sought to have the case dismissed. Today, US District Court Judge Linda V. Parker denied their requests, allowing the suit to proceed to discovery.

Here is a copy of today’s decision:

Here is the original complaint filed in 2016:

Here is the second complaint filed in 2018:

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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