Walmart Fire Headlines – It Is Not A Suit But A Claim – Right Now

A major fire at a Walmart distribution center in Plainfield, Indiana earlier this year, has led to the filing of tort claims with 34 different fire agencies. This is turn has prompted headlines proclaiming that Walmart has sued all of these entities, which is not the case – at least not as of today.

Let’s start with the fire, that began on March 16, 2022 in a massive mega-warehouse just outside Indianapolis. By all accounts, the firefight did not go well, resulting in damages into the hundreds of millions. By the way, this is not the first time one of these mega warehouses has burned to the ground despite being fully sprinklered. Back when I was with the NFPA, I wrote about similar fires that were fought employing similar strategies resulting in identical outcomes, lawsuits and all. That was in 2009. My conclusion remains the same: it’s not negligent firefighting… these buildings are built in a way that fires in them cannot be managed by human firefighters. It’s a design problem… but I digress….

Here is a list of the responding agencies that Walmart claims may be responsible for some of the damage that occurred:

  • Amo Fire Department
  • Bargersville Fire Department
  • Brownsburg Fire Territory
  • Carmel Fire Department
  • Coatesville Fire Department
  • Consolidated Indianapolis and Marion County
  • Danville Fire Department
  • Decatur Township
  • Greencastle Fire Department
  • Greenwood Fire Department
  • Hendricks County Fire Buffs
  • Indiana State Fire Marshal
  • Indianapolis Airport Fire Department
  • Indianapolis Fire Department
  • Jamestown Fire Department
  • Lebanon Fire Department
  • Lizton Union Township Fire Department
  • Madison Township Fire Department (not Putnam)
  • Martinsville Fire Department
  • Monroe Township Fire Department
  • Mooresville Fire Department
  • North Salem Fire Department
  • Perry Township Fire Department
  • Pike Township Fire Department
  • Pittsboro Fire Department
  • Plainfield Fire Territory
  • Speedway Fire Department
  • Stilesville Fire Department
  • Washington Township Avon Fire Department
  • Wayne Township
  • Westfield Fire Department
  • White River Township Fire Department
  • Whitestown Fire Department
  • Zionsville Fire Department

At the center of the news stories about Walmart’s recent legal posturing in the case, is Indiana’s Tort Claims Act. All fifty states plus the federal government have tort claims acts. They serve several functions: to allow certain types of claims and lawsuits to be brought against government; to establish a procedure for the processing of such claims and lawsuits (including making the filing of a tort claim a prerequisite to filing a lawsuit against a governmental agency); and to bar some claims (where immunity protection still exists) and place monetary caps on others.

So why is Walmart filing these tort claims now against the folks who risked their lives to try and save their building, perhaps before they fully understand what role the architects, engineers, contractors, and others may have played in their loss? The answer is simple: Under Indiana Code § 34-13-3-8, a tort claim must be filed within 180-days after a loss occurs. The failure to file such a claim within the time frame forecloses recovery in the future against a governmental agency. Architects, engineers and contractors who are not governmental actors are not subject to the 180-day time frame.

The filing of a tort claim does not mean that lawsuits are definitively going to be filed against fire departments in this case. Admittedly, they are a prerequisite to the filing suit against government. In that regard those fire agencies are clearly in Walmart’s cross-hairs. But if Walmart was 100% committed to filing suit against these fire departments, why did they wait until the very last possible moment (180 days from March 16) to file the claim? Often we see tort claims filed soon after a loss when those who bear ultimate responsibility are obvious. That may not be the case here.

No fire departments are prepared to battle difficult fires in these mega warehouse buildings. The problem is with the design, not with the firefighters or the firefighting. Hopefully Walmart’s investigation will point them in the right direction for recourse, if indeed any recourse is to be had.

Thank you to all who wrote in to let me know about the Walmart fire headlines. Here is a copy of the notice of claim sent to the Plainfield Fire Territory.

Update: October 7, 2022: A big thank you to Pete Matthews, Editor in Chief of Firehouse Magazine. Somehow my article from 2009 is not available online – but he was able to scan a copy. While the article does not make reference to the specific fires that prompted it – one was in South Carolina.

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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