Suit Over Dispatch Errors To Fatal Fire Remanded Back To State Court

A wrongful death civil rights lawsuit filed by the estate of a man killed in a fire, has been dismissed from federal court and remanded back to state court. John Lew Brown died in a house fire in his mobile home in Ferry County, Washington, on July 26, 2016.

His estate filed suit against Ferry County and two dispatchers alleging negligence in the handling of the 911 call and a violation of Brown’s due process rights under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. The case was originally filed in Lincoln County Superior Court, but removed to US District Court for the Eastern District of Washington due to the Constitutional issues.

In dismissing the federal claims, United States District Judge Stanley A. Bastian explained that facts as follows:

  • At 4:05 p.m. on July 26, 2016, Mr. Brown called 911 from an inactive cell phone and said his house was on fire. He was unable to give his address, and at one point said that he lived in Kansas. He was able to tell the 911 operator, Defendant Peter Brandon, that he lived on Cook Mountain Road.
  • He ended up calling a number of times, hanging up some of times, but when asked he never responded with his address.
  • At 4:16 p.m., Mr. Brandon dispatched the fire department. He directed them to respond to the vicinity of Old Kettle Falls Road from the Highway 20 side.
  • Mr. Brown then called back and Mr. Brandon told him that he was sending firetrucks to the location and that Mr. Brown was interfering with his ability to do his job and to not call back.
  • At 4:18 p.m. Mr. Brown called 911 and Defendant Karin Hall took the call.
  • Mr. Brown said that he needed help and said his name was Joseph.
  • Ms. Hall said the fire crew was in route. At 4:21 p.m., a 911 call was received, and the caller hung up shortly thereafter.
  • At 4:23 p.m. Mr. Brown called 911 and said, “It’s already gone . . . It’s fucking on fire.” He was coughing. He hung up when Ms. Hall asked for his address.
  • One of the firetrucks, R31, dispatched to Old Kettle Falls Road on the Highway 20 or Sherman Pass side.
  • The driver of the firetruck stated in his Affidavit that he did not see smoke in that direction but headed there anyway. At Pinegrove Junction, they still did not see any column of smoke but continued East on Highway 20.
  • The other firetruck, R33, left the fire station a couple of minutes behind R31.
  • The driver of R33 saw a column of smoke when they reached Pinegrove Junction, and headed in the direction of the smoke, which would be the areas of Highway 21 and Old Kettle Falls Road.
  • R33 arrived on the scene at 4:28 p.m.
  • Around 4:27 p.m., R31 was notified that the fire was by the PUD garage, so it turned around and headed to the fire. It arrived at the scene at 4:33 pm.
  • Upon arrival of the scene by R33, the trailer was fully engulfed in fire.
  • The driver of R33 did not recall anyone mentioning that the trailer was occupied. He did hear on the radio that someone might be on the scene, but he did not know if that meant inside or outside the home.
  • The driver of R31 also stated that he was not told whether there was anyone in the trailer.
  • He could not see through the windows because they were completely blacked out with smoke.
  • After the front window was broken, Mr. Brown’s body was found in the kitchen area of the trailer.
  • No ambulance was dispatched prior to finding Mr. Brown’s body.
  • The ambulance crew called Mr. Brandon twice to ask him if they should go on the call, but he said it was okay to just standby and gave the crew the option to go if they wanted.
  • After the body was found, the ambulance was dispatched.

The case centered around whether the dispatchers engaged in affirmative conduct that endangered Brown, or acted with deliberate indifference toward his situation. Judge Bastian concluded the evidence could not support either finding. As explained in the decision:

  • Here… the Court is unable to conclude that Plaintiff’s Fourteenth Amendment Due Process rights were violated.
  • A reasonable jury could not conclude there was affirmative conduct by Mr. Brandon that put Mr. Brown in danger and a reasonable jury could only rely on speculation as to how he may have responded to any of Mr. Brandon’s comments made directly to him.
  • While Mr. Brandon expressed his frustration with Mr. Brown to other persons, most of these statements were not made to Mr. Brown.
  • Even if Mr. Brandon’s statements could be interpreted by Mr. Brown to mean that the police were going to arrive and arrest him, a reasonable jury could only rely on speculation to conclude that as a result of the statement, Mr. Brown chose to stay in his burning trailer, rather than leave it.
  • The evidence does not suggest that Mr. Brandon harbored the requisite mental state of intentionally or knowingly subjecting Mr. Brown to a known or obvious danger.
  • Under Plaintiff’s theory, in order to find that Mr. Brandon was deliberately indifferent, a reasonable jury would have to conclude that Mr. Brandon intentionally sent the firetrucks in the wrong direction, knowing that Mr. Brown would be injured or would perish in the fire.
  • Similarly, a reasonable jury would have to conclude that Mr. Brandon intentionally refrained from dispatching the ambulance so Mr. Brown would not be treated for any injuries. A reasonable jury could not come to such conclusion.
  • What the evidence indicates is that Mr. Brandon initially thought the calls were prank calls and his actions are consistent with his initial view of the situation.
  • While he may have been negligent in coming to this conclusion and he may have been negligent in failing to obtain additional information from Mr. Brown, which resulted in the sending of firetrucks in the wrong direction, or negligent in failing to dispatch the ambulance, no reasonable jury could conclude that he was deliberately indifferent to Mr. Brown’s safety and well-being.

The case was remanded back to Lincoln County Superior Court to address the state law allegations.

Here is a copy of the decision:

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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