Fire Law: 2011 Retrospective of Fire Service Legal Developments

Last month, I took a look at the three most important court decisions that affected the U.S. fire service in 2011. This month, I focus on what I consider the year’s most interesting and bizarre legal stories. For me, the important cases are those that...


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While being processed, Archuleta claimed Velarde was uncooperative, so he charged him with concealing his identity and obstructing a sheriff’s officer. Velarde denied both the allegations and claimed the two later charges were the result of law enforcement officials transposing one number each on his birth date and social security numbers. The story made headlines across the country and portrayed Velarde in a very poor light. It also raises some serious questions that the National Incident Management System’s Incident Command System does not seem to address.

The case came to trial in July 2011 and Velarde was exonerated of all three charges. According to the chief’s attorney, Diego Zamora, the chief plans to sue Archuleta and the county for false arrest and malicious prosecution. Statutory notice of intent to sue has already been submitted with county officials. This will be a good case to watch in 2012.

The most bizarre

Here are my choices for the most bizarre cases of 2011:

In re Estate of Thomas Araguz involved the line-of-duty death of Wharton, TX, Fire Department Captain Thomas Araguz III and stands as one of the most bizarre fire service cases in history. Araguz died on July 3, 2010, at a structure fire, leaving an estranged wife, Nikki Araguz, and two children from a prior marriage.

A dispute arose between Nikki and Araguz’s family over the $600,000 in survivors’ benefits due to the fact that Nikki was transgendered. Judge Randy Clapp held that the marriage between Araguz and Nikki was void under Texas law because Nikki was born a man. As a result, the survivors’ benefits were awarded to the firefighter’s children, not Nikki. The ruling made it unnecessary for the court to consider an even more contentious issue: whether Araguz knew his wife was transgendered when he married her or whether (as his mother and first wife allege) he was the victim of fraud. The case is currently being appealed.

Otter v. Frenchtown Township et al involves a suit brought by the driver of a pickup truck in Michigan who rounded a corner at a high rate of speed and slammed into the back of a fire truck parked at the scene of a previous accident. The accident was caught on a police car’s dashcam and showed Otter’s vehicle traveling too fast for conditions.

Otter had to be extricated from his pickup and was flown by helicopter to a trauma center. He sued the township and one of the firefighters who helped to save his life, claiming they were responsible for the accident.

An investigation revealed that Otter had a long record of driving infractions and should not have even had a license. He was observed by a TV news crew to be feigning injuries that he claimed were attributable to the accident. Court documents also revealed that he had high levels of drugs in his system at the time of the accident that would have impaired his driving. Despite all this, the case was settled by the township and its insurer for $47,000 prior to trial. Under the settlement, $20,000 would be placed in a trust fund for Otter’s children and $27,000 would go to Otter’s attorneys. The settlement agreement stipulated that Otter himself would receive nothing. n