Jefferson Township Fire Department: Lawsuit Settled

The heat is off for 12 local firefighters.

Jefferson Township Fire Depar-tment (JTFD) personnel learned yesterday that a deal has been struck to dismiss a lawsuit against 12 firefighters.

"It was a very good phone call," said Assistant Fire Chief Paul "Buck" Van Horn, who also was named in the suit. "We were really happy."

Van Horn said he is in the process of notifying the other firefighters named in the lawsuit.

"They were all very happy and relieved of the result," Van Horn said this morning. "They all feel they give it their best every time they go out the door and to be hit with a lawsuit really set them back."

While Van Horn is pleased that the suit has been settled, he felt it had no merit and would have been dismissed in court.

"Given all the facts of the case, we didn't think it had a chance to go anywhere anyway," Van Horn said.

The settlement came as a result of a request for sanctions against Baltimore, Md.-based Farmers In-surance (with the local office in Columbus), the insurance company which brought the lawsuit against not only the firefighters, but also against the Jefferson Township Fire Department.

Farmers Insurance sued about the handling of a Thursday, Dec. 4, fire at the home of George and Beth Staton, 6118 North Road, West Jefferson.

The suit, filed Thursday, April 29, alleges the firefighters handled the fire improperly, leading to a large claim the insurance company was forced to pay. The insurance company's lawsuit sought a minimum of $185,000, from the fire department and the individual firefighters.

"Defendant firefighters... individually and/or as employees of the Jefferson Township Fire Department, performed their professional firefighting duties/services in a reckless, willful and or wanton manner through their actions or omissions," according to the suit.

"As a direct and proximate result of the reckless, willful and/or wanton actions and/or omissions of the defendant firefighters, individually and/or as employees of the Jefferson Township Fire Department, Plaintiff's insured sustained substantial damages."

Madison County Court of Common Pleas Judge Robert Nichols ruled to dismiss claims against the fire department, but did not dismiss claims against the firefighters. According to the Ohio Revised Code a political subdivision, such as a township, in most instances is immune from liability in civil cases.

Individual employees of the political subdivision are not immune.

W. Charles Curley, attorney for the fire department, also represented the individual firefighters. He filed a letter with the court, seeking sanctions against the insurance company. He claimed the suit was "frivolous" because the law granting immunity "is so clear."

The insurance company, in an effort to avoid a ruling that would force it to pay those sanctions (which included attorney's fees and costs but no specific dollar amount) agreed to drop the suit against the firefighters if Curley would drop the request for sanctions.

"The township trustees, Chief Houk, the individual firefighters who were sued and I continue to believe that this lawsuit was a frivolous one that should never have been filed," Curley said. "While I am confident that our motion for sanctions would have been granted by Judge Nichols and that Farmers would eventually have been ordered to pay the township's attorney fees and costs, we felt that it was better to have the lawsuit dismissed and to put this behind us rather than to continue litigating it.

"The dismissal of the case by Farmers certainly vindicates our position that neither the township nor the firefighters who responded to this fire did anything wrong."

Beth Staton did not agree with that assessment.

"They did handle it improperly," she said.

Staton said she was pleased that the insurance company sued, but was unaware the suit had been filed until she read about it in the newspaper.

The suit claimed, "defendants (JTFD and 12 firefighters individually named in the suit) failed to perform their services at subject property in professional manner including, but not limited to, failing to take adequate steps to ensure that damages were minimized, running out of water to extinguish the blaze and failing to utilize close resources as an alternative water supply."

The fire started in the attached garage, where George Staton was welding on a car about 4:30 p.m. The day after the fire, JTFD Chief Bill Houk said Staton believed a spark flew from the welder onto a car seat.

Staton attempted to use a fire extinguisher on the fire, then went outside to get a garden hose to further try to extinguish the blaze, but was unable to enter the garage again, Houk said.

The garage was fully engulfed in flames and the fire was spreading to the house when firefighters from JTFD arrived at the scene. The car in the garage was destroyed. A car in the driveway also was destroyed. A third vehicle, also in the driveway, was heavily damaged.

The house and its attached garage were heavily damaged. Firefighters remained on the scene three hours and returned an hour later in response to a report that the fire had rekindled. They returned to the scene shortly after 7 a.m. the following day, to deal with another rekindle.

Personnel from eight area fire departments assisted units from Jefferson Township Fire Department.