Arkansas Firefighters Not Liable For Fire Deaths

A federal appeals court has ruled that the Jacksonville, Arkansas Fire Department and five of its firefighters cannot be held liable for the deaths of a mother and her four children in an apartment fire in 2012.

The fire occurred in the early morning hours of March 22, 2012, killing Marilyn Beavers and her children, Dequan, Syndi, Haylee, and Emily. The family lived in Apartment 3-A of the Max Howell Place Housing Project. That morning the fire department was called to Apartment 3-B for a smell of smoke. Firefighters investigated but they were unable to locate a source of the smoke smell in Apartment 3-B. They knocked on the door of Apartment 3-A, but no one answered. Because there was a working structure fire going on several blocks away, firefighters concluded that was the source of the smoke smell and left the scene. Their bodies were found later that morning by maintenance workers.

The family sued the fire department, Captain Larry Hamsher, Captain Dewan Lewis, Engineer Chris McDonald, Engineer Wayne Taylor, and Firefighter Tony Sutherland in state court for negligence and wrongful death. The suit also included wrongful death allegations against the city and the housing authority. A separate suit was later filed in US District Court alleging a violation of the victims’ civil rights (taking of their lives without due process), as well as a product liability claim against the smoke detector manufacturer.

Both suits were consolidated and heard in US District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas. The district court granted summary judgment to each of the defendants, concluding that there was insufficient evidence that any of the defendants were responsible for the deaths. The plaintiff-family members appealed that decision to the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals, who affirmed the district court ruling yesterday.

Understanding the facts of what occurred are critical to understanding the reasoning behind the court’s decision. Quoting from the 8th Circuit:

  • In the early morning of March 22, 2012, Beavers and her children, Dequan, Syndi, Haylee, and Emily, spoke on the phone with Beavers’s fiancee, Furlandare Singleton, before going to bed.
  • Phone records show the call began at 2:19 a.m. and lasted for about four and a half minutes.
  • Shortly thereafter, a fire erupted in the kitchen. The fire marshal later determined unattended cooking caused the fire.
  • A pot was found on a kitchen stove burner and the burner knob was turned to the on position.
  • At 5:46 a.m., Beavers’s neighbor, Jennifer Gray, whose apartment shared a wall with Beavers’s apartment in their duplex building, called 911, reporting that she “smell[ed] a strong smell of smoke.”
  • Firefighters arrived at 6:02 a.m.
  • After investigating in Gray’s apartment and knocking on Beavers’s apartment door — finding no signs of smoke or fire — they left at 6:23 a.m.
  • At around 7:25 a.m., two maintenance workers who had been contacted by Gray walked around the duplex and noticed fire damage near the kitchen window of Beavers’s apartment.
  • They let themselves inside and found the bodies of Beavers and her children.
  • Two children were found in one bedroom, a third child was found in another bedroom, and Beavers and the fourth child were found together in the bathroom.
  • The cause of death for each decedent was soot and smoke inhalation.
  • The coroner was unable to determine the approximate time of the deaths.
  • Beavers’s body was found with severe burns on her hands, arms, forehead, and neck from attempting to extinguish the fire.
  • While Beavers’s efforts to extinguish the fire were not successful, the fire marshal determined she likely interrupted the burning process and the fire burnt itself out after spreading from the kitchen range to the cabinetry.
  • A smoke alarm that had been mounted in the hallway of the apartment was found lying on the floor.
  • When the smoke alarm was moved from the floor, the absence of soot on the carpet underneath it indicated that it was “on the floor early in the fire,” according to a Jacksonville Police Department detective.
  • The alarm had been mounted on the ceiling and was “hard wired,” meaning it was directly wired to the apartment’s electricity and was not battery powered.
  • The detective noted in his report that he believed the heat from the smoke caused the smoke alarm to lose its form and fall from its mount, disconnecting from the wires in the ceiling. But a report by the Arkansas State Crime Laboratory said a visual examination showed the wires appeared to have been cut.
  • The hallway light switch had soot smears on it and there was a scratch in the “popcorn” ceiling near where the smoke alarm had been mounted.

In explaining why the firefighters could not be held liable for the deaths, the 8th Circuit said:

  • The plaintiffs claim the firefighters did not take Gray’s report of smelling smoke seriously and did not do a good enough job inspecting the duplex when checking for signs of smoke and fire.
  • For this conduct to have been the cause of Beavers’s death, Beavers and the children would logically have had to still been alive at 6:02 a.m. when the firefighters arrived, but died before their bodies were found at around 7:25 a.m.
  • There is no record evidence that would show they were still alive at 6:02 a.m.
  • The plaintiffs’ operative complaint states the fire ignited “[m]oments after the family’s 2:00 a.m. phone conversation” with Singleton.
  • Phone records show the phone call was actually initiated at 2:19 a.m. and lasted for about four and a half minutes.
  • It is incredibly unlikely anyone inside the apartment was still alive at 6:02 a.m. when the kitchen fire ignited “moments after” the 2:19 a.m. phone call.
  •  At most, there is insufficient evidence as to causation; the evidence would leave the factfinder with “a choice of possibilities.”
  • We conclude the district court did not err in granting summary judgment to the City Defendants.

Here is a copy of the decision.

While this outcome will no doubt be painful for the victims’ family, it can hardly be claimed as a victory for the fire department, or the firefighters who endured six years of hell going through our legal system. There are no winners in this case, just survivors. BTW the firefighters were sued personally…

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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