New Mexico Firefighters Sue Over Fireworks Explosion

The estate of a deceased firefighter along with seven firefighters injured in a fireworks explosion last year have filed suit against the City of Rosewell and the fireworks dealer. The June 5, 2019 explosion claimed the life of FF Jeff Stroble and injured 12 others. Stroble was 46 years old.

The suit was filed this week in Chaves County District Court by Reba Stroble, the Estate of Jeff Stroble, Warren Aldrich, Kenneth Barncastle, Mark Brackeen, Robert Bonham, Jose Muñoz, Austin Hensley, and Buddy Nutt. It names the city and Flying Phoenix Corporation d/b/a Flying Phoenix Fireworks as defendants.

The firefighters claim that the city required them to handle the fireworks despite the fact they were not properly trained, and over the objection of the fire department. As explained in the complaint:

  • Prior to 2019, the Roswell Fire Department requested that the City of Roswell hire contractors experienced and trained in fireworks preparation and deployment to manage the fireworks show because the Roswell Fire Department firefighters were not qualified to safely put on this show.
  • The Fire Department made it clear to the City of Roswell that forcing its firefighters to manage a pyrotechnics show was dangerous and put firemen at serious risk of injury.
  • In 2018, the City of Roswell hired a third-party vendor for the annual Fourth of July fireworks show.
  • In 2019, however, the City of Roswell, despite knowing that the Roswell Fire Department was put at unreasonable risk of injury by forcing them to handle the fireworks show and that the Fire Department had specifically requested not to be responsible for the pyrotechnics show, required the Roswell Fire Department to put on the 2019 Fourth of July fireworks show.
  • Firefighters employed by the Roswell Fire Department were tasked by the City of Roswell with all aspects of the fireworks production, including preparing the fireworks for the show, loading the e-matches onto the fireworks, attaching the e-matches to the devices that ignite the fireworks and, ultimately, supervising and running the fireworks show. All of this was done during on-duty hours.
  • On June 5, 2019, at approximately 9:00 a.m., Jeff Stroble, Warren Aldrich, Kenneth Barncastle, Mark Brackeen, Robert Bonham, Jose Muñoz, Austin Hensley and Buddy Nutt, along with several other individuals, began transferring cases of fireworks from a storage unit to a City-owned building for sorting and fusing the firework shells with the e-matches.
  • The firefighters were attaching e-matches to the last case of fireworks when an e-match spontaneously ignited and exploded the firework shell to which it was attached or was being attached, which subsequently ignited the fireworks inside the building. A massive explosion occurred, causing the building’s roof to collapse and the entire building to burn.
  • All of the firefighters sustained injuries in the explosion and subsequent fire, including but not limited to bums and hearing loss.
  • Jeff Stroble and Robert Bonham were flown to a regional bum center for treatment of the serious injuries they sustained, while the others were treated in Roswell.
  • On July 21, 2019, Jeff Stroble died from his injuries while at the regional burn center.

The suit alleges negligence, strict liability, and products liability. The complaint specifically alleges that the firefighters’ claims are not barred by either workers comp exclusivity doctrine nor by governmental immunity:

  • While workers’ compensation is typically the exclusive remedy for an employee injured on the job, an employer loses the rights afforded by the Workers’ Compensation Act when: (1) the employer engages in an intentional act or omission, without just cause or excuse, that is reasonably expected to result in the injury suffered by the worker; (2) the employer expects the injury to occur, or has utterly disregarded the consequences of the intentional act or omission; and (3) the intentional act or omission proximately causes the worker’s injury. See Delgado v. Phelps Dodge Chino, Inc., 2001-NMSC-034.
  • The City of Roswell had a duty to exercise ordinary care for the safety of other persons, including firefighters employed by the Roswell Fire Department.
  • The City of Roswell breached this duty when it required the firefighters to prepare and put on the fireworks show, despite knowledge of the lack of qualifications of the firefighters to do so and the likelihood of serious injury to the firefighters.
  • Section 41-4-6 of the New Mexico Tort Claims Act waives immunity “for damages resulting from bodily injury, wrongful death or property damage caused by the negligence of public employees while acting within the scope of their duties in the operation or maintenance of any building, public park, machinery, equipment or furnishings.”

Here is a copy of the complaint:

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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