Wrongful Death Suit Against WV Fire Company For Fatal Accident in Ohio to Proceed

A federal court has refused to dismiss a wrongful death lawsuit filed against a West Virginia firefighter and his fire department over the death of a couple at a fire scene in Ohio. William A. Reed, Jr. and Karolyn Reed died on April 29, 2021 at the scene of a mobile home fire when they were struck by a backing fire truck.

The fire occurred in Marietta, Ohio. The apparatus that struck the couple responded on mutual aid from the Williamstown Volunteer Fire Company, from Williamstown, West Virginia. The facts were explained in the decision as follows:

  • Defendant Keith Willhide was part of the Williamstown crew who responded to the fire on April 29, 2021.
  • Defendant Willhide was operating the Williamstown firetruck at the time.
  • Once Williamstown arrived at the scene, Defendant Willhide was directed by an Ohio fire department and/or Ohio authorities in charge of the scene to park the Williamstown firetruck on County Road 9.
  • Mr. and Mrs. Reed arrived at the scene of the fire and were permitted to remain on scene.
  • Mr. and Mrs. Reed stood on County Road 9 behind the Williamstown firetruck for a period of time.
  • Defendants claim, after sitting stationary in their firetruck on County Road 9 for some time, they were advised by an Ohio agency to dump their water.
  • While Mr. and Mrs. Reed were still standing on the roadway behind the Williamstown firetruck, Defendant Willhide began backing the firetruck down the roadway as directed.
  • Plaintiff claims the fire was under control at the time Defendant Willhide began backing up the firetruck.
  • Mr. and Mrs. Reed were ultimately struck by the firetruck as Defendant Willhide was backing up. Mrs. Reed sustained blunt force trauma and crushing injuries which resulted in her death.
  • Mr. Reed was dragged and trapped underneath the firetruck where he remained for several minutes before succumbing to his injuries.
  • A subsequent investigation found that the reverse alarm in the firetruck was not working properly at the time of the fatal accident.

The suit was brought by Craig W. Wakefield, as the administrator of the estates of the Reeds. It names the department and the driver of the fire truck, Keith Willhide, accusing both of negligence and wrongful death.

Willhide and the fire department moved to dismiss the suit claiming that they were immune from liability under Ohio law because there were a de factor Ohio fire department responding to an emergency.  Wakefield countered claiming the Williamstown VFD was not eligible for immunity because it was not a governmental agency. Rather it was a non-governmental entity that operated under an agreement with Williamstown, West Virginia. In addition, the Reeds were killed as a result of a motor vehicle accident, which is specifically exempted from immunity protection. Finally, at the time the Reeds were struck, the fire had already been declared under control. As such, neither Willhide or the Williamstown should be eligible for immunity protection.

Ohio’s immunity law for fire departments is complicated. First, it is limited to fire departments that are government entities or private fire companies that operate under an agreement with a government entity. Second, while there is an exception to immunity protection for harm that results from the operation of motor vehicle, there is an exception to the motor vehicle immunity exception for fire departments:  

  • Ohio Revised Code Section 2744.02 (B)(1) The following are full defenses to that liability:
  • (b) – A member of a municipal corporation fire department or any other firefighting agency was operating a motor vehicle while engaged in duty at a fire, proceeding toward a place where a fire is in progress or is believed to be in progress, or answering any other emergency alarm and the operation of the vehicle did not constitute willful or wanton misconduct;

US District Judge Algenon L. Marbley explained the decision to deny the motion to dismiss as follows:

  • In this case, Defendants argue they were acting under contract with Ohio to trigger Ohio’s immunities and defenses, while Plaintiff alleges they were not.
  • As discussed in detail below, this Court finds there is a genuine issue of material fact whether Williamstown was under contract with Ohio at the time of the fire and accident, because the mutual aid agreement was expired at the time and the Court does not have any reliable evidence before it that a valid agreement was in place.
  • Additionally, Plaintiff alleges Defendants were not engaged in duty at a fire or answering any other emergency alarm at the time of the accident because the fire was under control.
  • Defendants claim they were engaged in duty at a fire since they responded to a 911 dispatch for a structural fire.
  • Defendants assert the standard is not whether they were actively working to extinguish the fire, and at the time of the accident, they were backing up the firetruck as directed by Ohio authorities to dump their water.
  • Based on Plaintiff’s and Defendants’ different versions of what was happening at the time Defendant Willhide began backing up the firetruck, this Court finds there is a genuine issue of material fact whether Defendant Willhide was operating a motor vehicle while engaged in duty at a fire, proceeding toward a place where a fire is in progress or is believed to be in progress, or answering any other emergency alarm, as required by O.R.C. § 2744.02(B)(1)(b).
  • Finally, even if Defendants were engaged in duty at a fire, proceeding toward a place where a fire is in progress or is believed to be in progress, or answering any other emergency alarm, Plaintiff argues Defendants are stripped of immunity because Defendant Willhide’s actions were willful, wanton, and/or reckless.
  • On the one hand, Plaintiff argues Defendant Willhide began backing up the firetruck with blatant disregard to the safety of anyone.
  • Specifically, Plaintiff alleges Defendant Willhide failed to check the firetruck’s blind spots, failed to ensure the space and area behind the firetruck was clear, failed to utilize a spotter while backing up, and failed to ensure the firetruck’s reverse alarm system was working properly.
  • Additionally, Plaintiff alleges Williamstown failed to establish policies and procedures regarding the operation of its firetruck and failed to train its employees, including Defendant Willhide, properly to operate its firetruck.
  • On the other hand, Defendants argue Mr. and Mrs. Reed inadvertently put themselves into a blind spot and Defendant Willhide could not see that they were there and, thus, his actions were, at most, mere negligence.
  • Based on these disputes, this Court finds there is a genuine issue of material fact whether Defendant Willhide’s actions were willful, wanton, and/or reckless, thereby depriving Defendants of immunity under Ohio law.
  • Accordingly, Defendants are not entitled to judgment as a matter of law with respect to their argument that they were operating as a de facto Ohio fire department.

Here is a copy of the complaint:

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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