Insurance Company Sues Ohio Fire Dept; Company Not Happy With Firefighters Performance

A Baltimore, Ohio-based insurance company was forced to pay after a 2003 house fire.

Apparently, the company believes the Jefferson Township Fire Department is to blame.

Farmers Insurance, of Ohio has sued the Jefferson Township Fire Department for its handling of a Thursday, Dec. 4, fire at the home of George and Beth Staton, 6118 North Road, West Jefferson.

"The owner or the insurance company was apparently not happy with our performance," said Jefferson Township Fire Department Chief Bill Houk.

The suit, filed Thursday, April 29, alleges that "defendants (JTFD and 12 firefighters individually named in the suit) failed to perform their services at subject property in a 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 George Staton believed a spark flew from the welder onto a car seat.

George Staton attempted to use a fire extinguisher to douse the fire, then went outside to get a garden hose to continue the effort, 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.

Houk was contacted about the suit. He would not comment about the specifics of the fire.

Personnel from eight area fire departments assisted units from JTFD.

Farmers Insurance provided coverage for the Statons at the time of the fire. The company filed suit, seeking a minimum of $185,000, from the fire department and the individual firefighters.

"Jefferson Township Fire Department knew or should have known that the individual firefighters dispatched to Mr. and Mrs. Station's home did not possess the necessary and/or requisite skills to extinguish the fire and minimize the amount of damages sustained to the Staton home," according to the suit.

Friday, Madison County Court of Common Pleas Judge Robert Nichols ruled to dismiss claims against the actual fire department, but did not dismiss claims against the firefighters, including Houk and Assistant Fire Chief Paul (Buck) Van Horn.

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.

The suit alleges the firefighters handled the fire improperly and that their handling of the fire increased the amount of the claim the insurance company was forced to pay.

"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."

W. Charles Curley, attorney for the fire department, also represents the individual firefighters. He declined to comment about the specifics of the fire, but said he is confident the court will find his clients did not act with malice, recklessness or wanton neglect.

He filed a letter with the court, seeking sanctions against the insurance company for having sought damages against the township.

"We believe that it (the township's immunity) is so clear in the law, that we believe the suit against the township was a frivolous lawsuit and the insurance company and their attorneys ought to have to reimburse the township for attorney's fees and costs," Curley said.

Curley said he is not seeking a specific dollar amount.

No court date has been set for the suit.

Repeated calls to the homeowner and the insurance company's attorney, Andrew Malone, were not returned.