Fire Victims Sue City Over Denial of Re-Entry

The victims of a house fire are suing the City of Reno, Texas claiming that they were wrongfully prevented from re-entering their home after the fire. John and Stephanie Toppings have filed suit against the City of Reno and Police Chief Matt Birch in federal court claiming that preventing them from re-entering their property was an unconstitutional seizure.

The fire occurred on March 7, 2014. According to the complaint:

  • As the fire was developing and prior to engulfing portions of the house, Reno Police Chief Birch refused to permit the Toppings from securing items from the residential property, to include irreplaceable family heirlooms, sports memorabilia, family photographs, jewelry, etc.
  • Defendant Birch initially prohibited the Toppings from removing their vehicle from adjacent to the home until he was able to conduct a search of the vehicle. The reason given the Toppings was to prevent them from removing possible evidence; not for any safety considerations.
  • Prior to the Toppings leaving the smoldering remains of their home, Defendant Birch had police barrier tape placed around the property.
  • Upon information and belief, Defendant Birch has no formal training into arson investigation. Further, at no time did Defendant Birch make any inquiry of the Toppings as to the possible cause of the fire; despite Mrs. Toppings being at home with her children.
  • The following day, the Toppings arrived at their home to find that police barrier tape was still in place along their property line.
  • As they attempted to discern what to do and what possibly could be salvaged, Reno police officers drove by the property at various times and the officers ordered the Toppings not to enter their property or they would be arrested.
  • These orders were given in the absence of any warrant or other judicial order.

The fire was ruled accidental by the state fire marshal.

The three-count complaint alleges:

  1. Unlawful seizure of property and due process violations under 42 U.S.C. § 1983.
  2. Unconstitutional custom, policy and/or training deficiencies under Monell v. New York City Department of Social Services, which allows municipal liability for intentional acts as well as those resulting from deliberate indifference.
  3. Intentional infliction of severe emotional distress.

The toppings claims their damages exceed $100,000. Here is a copy of the complaint: Toppings v Reno

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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