Philly Not Liable for Fire Deaths

The City of Philadelphia will not have to pay damages to the estates of three people who died in a fire in 2018, according to a US Third Circuit of Appeals ruling handed down today. While the facts may have made for a rather compelling case, in the end the law was on the city’s side.

The March 21, 2018 fire claimed the lives of Alita Johnson, her son Haashim Johnson, and her stepfather Horace McCouellem. They were 25, 4 and 64 respectively. Their bodies were found three days after the fire by officials following up on pleas from family members trying to figure out what happened to their loved ones.

Let’s consider the facts as explained in the decision:

  • Late one evening in 2018, a fire ignited on the building’s second floor. Alita Johnson did what anyone would do and called 911.
  • Once connected, the phone operator directed city firefighters to the address of the burning building.
  • The incorrect address, it turns out, sending emergency responders the wrong way.
  • In the meantime, 911 transferred Ms. Johnson to an operator with the Philadelphia Fire Department’s emergency call center (“Operator”).
  • Ms. Johnson told the Operator that she and her family were inside the burning building, in a room on the rear third floor.
  • The Operator gave clear guidance in response: shut the door, place a towel across its bottom, and open a window. Ms. Johnson did as instructed.
  • The Operator also encouraged Ms. Johnson to remain calm, explaining that rescuers were on the way.
  • After a few minutes, for reasons unknown, the call disconnected.
  • That was the last communication with the Johnson Family.
  • During the call, the Operator discovered the address error and relayed the correct address to a fire department dispatcher (“Dispatcher”), who rerouted the rescuers.
  • But while the location of the fire was now correct, the scope of the emergency was not, since neither the Operator nor the Dispatcher told the firefighters that the Johnson Family was waiting inside the building.
  • So the firefighters left after extinguishing the fire without ever looking for them.
  • Days later, after relatives reported them missing, a full search of the building found their bodies, dead from smoke inhalation.

Tamika Johnson, the administratrix of the Johnson Family’s estates, filed suit against the City of Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Fire Department, Fire Commissioner Adam Thiel, the operator and the dispatcher. The suit alleged the obvious: wrongful death and negligence.  However, because legal theories such as sovereign immunity and the public duty doctrine offer substantial protection in operational cases such as this, the suit went on to allege a violation of the Johnson family’s civil rights under a legal theory often referred to as Monell liability (from the case Monell v. Department of Social Services, 436 U.S. 658 (1978)).

The US District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania ruled in favor of the city and fire department personnel, prompting the Johnson Family’s Estates to appeal. As explained by the Third Circuit:

  • Appellant [Johnson Family’s Estates] argues that the alleged calamity of errors that followed Alita Johnson’s desperate call traces to the City’s failure to provide “guidelines, policies, or training to its [fire department] operator[s] or dispatcher[s] regarding the communication of vital information to the caller requiring emergency assistance, or to the [f]irefighters responding to the scene.”
  • That failure, Appellant argues, violates the Johnson Family’s constitutional rights.
  • We begin by noting what is not argued: that Philadelphia is always responsible for the conduct of its employees.
  • Rather, as is well established, a municipality is not liable for the unconstitutional acts of its employees just because of their employment, under a respondeat superior theory.
  • But it may be liable if a plaintiff “demonstrate[s] that the violation of rights was caused by the municipality’s policy or custom.”
  • If the alleged policy or custom at issue is a failure to train or supervise (as it is here), the plaintiff must show that this failure “amounts to ‘deliberate indifference’ to the rights of persons with whom [the municipality’s] employees will come into contact.”
  • “Ordinarily,” this requires a plaintiff to identify a “‘pattern of similar constitutional violations by untrained employees'” that “puts municipal decisionmakers on notice that a new program is necessary . . .
  • Otherwise, the plaintiff needs to show that failure to provide the identified training would “likely… result in the violation of constitutional rights” – i.e., to show that “the need for more or different training [was] so obvious.”
  • Appellant does not allege a history of similar problems at the fire department. Nor is it obvious that fire department personnel would intentionally withhold important information from the firefighters.
  • Accidents occur, of course. But the Monell inquiry asks whether a municipality was deliberately indifferent to the risk of a constitutional violation.
  • And as already noted, negligent behavior does not violate the Constitution under the state-created danger theory.
  • That is why we see no error in the District Court’s conclusion that Appellant has not plausibly alleged that the City was deliberately indifferent to anyone’s substantive due process rights.
  • We will therefore affirm the dismissal of her Monell claim.

The court dismissed the associated negligence claims as barred by immunity. Here is a copy of the ruling.

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 45 years of fire service experience and 35 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, 4th ed. 2022) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.

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