Virginia Supreme Court Rules City Not Liable for Inoperable Hydrant at Fatal Fire

The Virginia Supreme Court has ruled that the City of Petersburg is immune from liability for the death of a man in a house fire in 2017. Corey Demetrius Massenburg died on January 24, 2017. His father, Sam Massenburg, filed a wrongful-death suit against the city claiming the failure of the closest fire hydrant to Corey’s house contributed to his death.

As explained in the decision, the suit alleged:

  • Although firefighters arrived promptly, the closest fire hydrant “was effectively inoperable” because it “was not receiving an adequate or sufficient sustained flow of water.”
  • The complaint stated that the lack of water pressure was a systemic problem affecting the area in which the house was situated.
  • It faulted the City for failing to notify area residents that the infrastructure was “not adequate or sufficient to provide the required safe flow of water to fire hydrants in the area.”
  • Firefighters had to resort to the next closest hydrant “some 1,000 feet away,” and as a result, Corey “died from smoke inhalation and thermal injuries before firefighters could establish a sufficient water supply and remove him from the burning residence.”

The city sought to have the suit dismissed by the trial court based on sovereign immunity. Massenburg argued sovereign immunity only applied to governmental functions, not proprietary functions like maintaining a water distribution system. The battle then became: was Massenburg arguing negligence in the firefighting (in which case the city would be immunity), or negligence in maintaining the hydrant system (in which case Massenburg could present his case to a jury because the city would not have immunity).

The trial court ruled in favor of the city. The supreme court explained the trial court’s decision as follows:

  • [D]espite the “mix of factual allegations regarding maintenance of the water system,” the ultimate harm alleged in the complaint was that the City failed to extinguish the fire in a timely manner, which made firefighting the municipal function at issue.
  • Because responding to emergency calls for fires is an immune governmental function, the trial court concluded that sovereign immunity barred Massenburg’s suit.
  • It accordingly granted the City’s [motion] and dismissed the complaint with prejudice.

In explaining it’s own reasoning for affirming the trial court and ruling in favor of the city, the supreme court said:

  • Massenburg’s case thus turns on the narrow question of whether the City can be liable for injuries resulting from its failure to maintain the operability of the fire hydrant in front of the house.
  • A fire hydrant, as the name suggests, exists to facilitate the firefighting function of the municipality that installed it.
  • That function is quintessentially governmental.
  • That fire hydrants can be put to other uses is inconsequential because the sole reason municipalities undertake the expense of installing fire hydrants is to promote their ability to respond to fire emergencies.
  • The City’s provision and maintenance of fire hydrants is therefore an immune governmental function.
  • Moreover, to the extent that this governmental function coincides with the City’s proprietary functions in Massenburg’s surviving allegations, “‘the governmental function is the overriding factor’ and the doctrine of sovereign immunity will shield the locality from liability.”
  • Accordingly, we affirm the trial court’s ruling dismissing Massenburg’s complaint with prejudice.

Here is a copy of the ruling:

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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