Misconduct in Florida Leads to Civil Suit

A poor decision by a fire officer who missed an EMS run to watch a youth soccer match in 2009, is under scrutiny again, this time by the family of the woman who died. Sharon Villatoro’s family filed the wrongful death suit last Friday against the city of North Port alleging negligence and the breach of a “nondelegable duty of reasonable care to respond to emergency calls.”

On November 21, 2009, Villatoro was experiencing difficulty breathing and called 911. At the time, Lt. Robert Combs and his crew had taken their ladder truck to a youth soccer game approximately 3 miles from their station. When the call came in, Lt. Combs remained at the game and the two crew members responded. Because both firefighters were needed to assist with the transport, the ladder truck was left unattended at the scene.

Following the incident, Lt. Combs was accused of trying to intimidate his subordinates into covering up the matter. In the end, Lt. Combs resigned and one of the other firefighters, Frank Bellina, was terminated.

A city investigation into the incident concluded that neither the delay in responding nor the absence of Lt. Combs played a role in the outcome of the incident. That issue will undoubtedly play a major role in the case as it unfolds.

Regardless of the fancy legalese that Villatoro’s attorneys use to characterize the claim (“nondelegable duty of reasonable care to respond to emergency calls”) their biggest hurdle is going to be a thing called proximate cause. Proximate cause refers to the fact that there must be a legally sufficient connection between a wrongful act and an end result for there to be liability. As regrettable as Lt. Combs behavior may have been, his misconduct alone does not automatically create liability for the city.

Neither outrageous behavior nor the clear violation of a legal duty to a victim – create liability if the plaintiff cannot prove a connection between the wrongful act and the result. Villatoro’s attorneys will have to prove that either the delay in the apparatus arriving, or the failure of Lt. Combs to personally respond to the incident, caused harm to the victim. Speculation that “maybe if” … will not be enough.

At the end of the day, the plaintiffs will likely need testimony from expert witnesses to say that if the ladder company had responded from quarters not the soccer field, or if Lt. Combs  responded with the apparatus, Villatoro would have survived. That is a pretty tall order.

More on the story.

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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