Command to Planning, Did Our Legal Unit Do A Title Search on This Property?

Today’s Burning Question: My fire department got an acquired structure to use for some hands-on training. The owner gave us a formal release and hold harmless agreement. Is there anything else we need to do?

Answer: Yes… make sure you do a title search to be certain that the person who claims to be the owner actually is the owner.

That is what a property owner in Oak Park, Illinois is claiming the fire department should have done back in 2008 before allowing its personnel to train in a house he owned.

This “you can’t make this stuff up” case arose when a developer, Bernard O’Reilly, agreed to buy the house from its owner, James Bogard. Because O’Reilly’s plans called for the house to be demolished he agreed to allow the fire department to use it for training. When the real estate market crashed, O’Reilly backed out of the deal but the fire department had already completed the training leaving the property badly damaged.

To add salt to Bogard’s wounds, the Village of Oak Park began assessing housing code fines against the property because of its deplorable condition…. which incidentally was largely attributable to the demolition/training work performed by the fire department. Those fines ended up being in excess of  $200,000.

The situation has prompted Bogard to file two lawsuits against the Oak Park Fire Department, the department’s upper echelon, and O’Reilly. Bogard’s first suit was filed in Federal Court alleging the fire department and the developer conspired to deprive him of his property without due process, (aka a taking of his property without just compensation). That case was dismissed in July 2009 because the court concluded Bogard had not exhausted his state law claims.

Bogard then filed a second suit in state court alleging “outrageous and willful and wanton actions and conduct” by the fire department. The suit further claimed that “No reasonable person would have believed the conduct described was lawful or constitutional.” The suit seeks damages and a ruling that Bogard should not have to pay the housing code fines.

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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