What Happened on Remand: Accidents During Firefighter Emergency Runs.

Two cases involving firefighters causing accidents during emergency runs have now been settled.

Anderson v. Massillon

In Anderson v. Massillon, 2012-Ohio-5711, a fire engine pumper truck on the way to a car fire approached an intersection going significantly in excess of the speed limit, and broadsided a van that had entered the intersection, killing Ronald Anderson and his four year old step-grandson Javarre Tate. Anderson, which is now much cited because the court separately defined the terms willful, wanton and reckless in the case syllabus, was remanded for a determination of the firefighters’ conduct with the new definitions.  Read an analysis of this merit decision here.

On remand, after the trial court found immunity for the city, but genuine issues of material fact on the liability of the firefighters, another round of appeals ensued. The Fifth District Court of Appeals unanimously found  that there were genuine issues of material fact on whether the conduct of the firefighters was wanton, as well as reckless, as re-defined in the Supreme Court decision, which also meant the city was not entitled to immunity as a matter of law either. That was in June of 2014.  The case was then set for trial and continued several times, and ultimately was settled on February 19, 2016, and approved by the Probate Court May 26, 2015.  Read further details about the settlement here.

Here’s a good newspaper account of what happened, from the Canton Repository:

http://www.cantonrep.com/news/20160224/settlement-reached-in-massillon-firetruck-deaths

Burlingame v. Estate of Burlingame

In a second case involving injuries from an emergency run, Dale and Grace Burlingame were killed when the van Dale was driving was struck by a fire engine in Canton driven by James Coombs. Traffic lights in the City of Canton use a “preemption system” that overrides the normal traffic light pattern and gives emergency vehicles the priority for green lights. This system is activated by the sound of the vehicle’s siren.  As Coombs’ fire truck approached the intersection, its siren stopped working. The firefighter in the passenger seat warned Coombs to slow down and to use the air horn to alert motorists. Coombs, who thought the light was green, continued to drive the truck through the intersection at 40 mph. As the Burlingames pulled out into the intersection when their light turned green, Coombs tried to swerve, but struck the van as it was waiting to turn left.  Dale was killed instantly, and Grace died later from her injuries.

The trial court granted summary judgment to the city and to Coombs, finding that Coombs was “negligent at best” and was entitled to immunity as a matter of law. The Fifth District Court of Appeals reversed as to both, finding that a violation of departmental policy or traffic laws may be a factor in determining whether a political subdivision employee is entitled to immunity under R.C. 2744.

On December 6, 2012 the Supreme Court of Ohio handed down a disposition in Burlingame v. Estate of Burlingame, 2012-Ohio-5698. In a 6-1 decision, the court sua sponte reversed the court of appeals decision on the authority of Anderson v. Massillon, and remanded the case to the court of appeals for further proceedings consistent with that opinion.

On remand, on August 5, 2013, the court of appeals again found that the trial court had erred in granting summary judgment to the defendants. The court of appeals also held that violations of internal departmental policies are relevant in determining the defendants’ culpability, as the Supreme Court held in Anderson. In addition, the appeals court directed the trial court to apply the definitions of willful, wanton, and reckless as newly defined by the Supreme Court in the Anderson decision. The case was then remanded.

On remand back to the trial court, the City of Canton filed for summary judgment once again. The trial court denied the city summary judgment, holding that the Fifth District had determined in its previous rulings that “summary judgment does not apply [to this case] as a matter of law,” as issues of fact still remain. The city appealed, and on December 8, 2014, the Fifth District Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s decision denying summary judgment.

Time to quit, apparently.  After a two-day mediation in mid-February, the case settled for $350,000.

Concluding Observation

When a city is or is not liable for torts of its employees under the political subdivision immunity statute is messy, messy, messy! Read Justice Lanzinger’s very thoughtful dissent in the Anderson case on this point.

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