Widow of LA County Firefighter Sues Homeowner for Wrongful Death

The widow of a Los Angeles County firefighter who died while operating at a house fire in 2022, has filed suit against the homeowner claiming that an illegal addition to the residence is responsible for his death. Jennifer Flagler filed a wrongful death suit on behalf of herself and two minor children against Timothy Racisz.

Jonathan Flagler suffered a heart attack while battling a fire in Racisz’s home on January 6, 2022. He was a 21-year fire service veteran, 19 with the Vernon Fire Department, and two with LA County. He was 47 years old. According to the Daily Breeze, the fire was electrical in nature.

The suit was filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court, alleging as follows:

  • DEFENDANT RACISZ is, and at all relevant times mentioned herein … owned, occupied, supervised, maintained, and otherwise controlled the residence at 30751 Tarapaca Road.
  • DEFENDANT RACISZ is also a professional architect licensed by the California Architects Board since June 25, 1985.
  • PLAINTIFFS are informed and believe, and based thereon, alleges that before January 6, 2022, DEFENDANT RACISZ knew or should have known that there was an approximately 456 square foot addition added the Subject Residence.
  • PLAINTIFFS are informed and believe, and based thereon, alleges that the Addition was constructed without permits that are mandated by local regulatory authorities.
  • PLAINTIFFS are informed and believe, and based thereon, alleges that the Addition was built without essential fire-mitigation elements which were crucial for preventing the undetected spread of fire within the structure of the Addition.
  • PLAINTIFFS are informed and believe, and based thereon, allege that DEFENDANT RACISZ knew or should have known (particularly because he is a licensed architect) that the ADDITION was unpermitted.
  • In addition, it appears through public records that DEFENDANT RACISZ supervised and bore responsibility for extensive electrical modifications to the subject residence during his ownership.
  • These modifications encompass various alterations, including but not limited to the installation of solar panels on the roof of the subject residence.
  • PLAINTIFFS are informed and believe, and based thereon allege, that DEFENDANT did not obtain all required building permits or approval from local regulatory authorities for the electrical modifications.
  • DEFENDANT knew or had reason to know that, in the event of fire in the subject residence, the lack of proper permits, and the absence of code-compliant fire mitigation elements in the addition increased the likelihood that a fire would spread rapidly and unnoticed throughout the residence.
  • DEFENDANT was fully aware or had compelling reasons to recognize that the hazardous conditions of the addition posed an unreasonably high risk of harm to others, notably including emergency responders, in the event of a fire.
  • PLAINTIFFS are informed and believe, and allege that the unlawful construction of the addition, including but not limited to the absence of mandated fire-mitigation elements, accelerated the fire’s rapid and unnoticed progression through the walls of the subject residence.
  • On January 6, 2022, the fire spread rapidly through the walls of the Addition, trapping DECEDENT inside and causing him serious injuries which ultimately caused his death.

The Daily Breeze quoted Racisz as denying that he made any unpermitted additions, saying about the suit “I feel like it would have been better to not call the fire department at all.” The Breeze also reported that Jennifer Flagler has already settled claims with Los Angeles County related to Jonathan’s death, for $2.95 million.

It appears that settlement was not the direct result of a lawsuit brought by Jennifer against the county, but rather an out-of-court settlement. That settlement was approved in September, 2023. Fox11 reported on April 13, 2022 that the autopsy report found methamphetamine and COVID in his system, but that his death was due to cardiopulmonary arrest and suffocation. Fox 11 quoted Jennifer’s attorneys at the time as saying that Jonathan’s death:

  • “was caused when on-scene commanders failed to keep track of the firefighters inside the burning residence, maintain radio contact with those firefighters, and promptly rescue Jonathan.”
  • “the autopsy concluded Jonathan died because he suffered a heart attack when he ran out of air, and there were no other conditions related to that immediate cause of death.”

The challenge for Jennifer now will be to move on from those sorts of allegations (including the factual allegations made as part of any civil claims filed against the county) to establish Racisz’s conduct was the proximate cause of Jonathan’s death. And then there’s the Firefighter’s Rule…

Here is a copy of the suit against Racisz:

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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