Attorney: Houston hiding behind technicalities in denying firefighter families’ allegations

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Houston Fire Department
(AP Photo/Houston Chronicle, Cody Duty,)

Houston city officials last month said they would not pursue financial claims against firefighter families to recover money the city paid out for medical care following the deadly Southwest Inn fire in 2013. But the attorney for those families has said, in essence, that the city is hiding behind legal technicalities in making that denial.

The Southwest Inn fire was the deadliest in Houston firefighter history, claiming the lives of four firefighters at the scene and a fifth who died of injuries later. Dozens more were injured. The city paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in death benefits, medical benefits, and workers compensation to firefighters who survived and families of those who didn’t.

Afterward, firefighters and firefighters’ families filed a lawsuit against Motorola, claiming that the company’s faulty radios caused an 18-minute delay in firefighters reaching their trapped colleagues, who died of suffocation. If the trapped firefighters had been reached earlier, they could have been revived, the suit alleges.

Ben Hall, the attorney representing the mother of fallen firefighter Robert Bebee and other firefighters, asked the court to rule on conflicting claims as to who should share in the settlement of that case.

“If there is any victory here is not that we whipped the city back into position; the real victory is that we’ve given hope to future firefighters and their families, that should they perish in the exercise of their duties, the city will not claw into their caskets to try to get money back,” Hall told The Texas Monitor.

ABC-13 first broke the story of the city’s claim in the Motorola suit.

From ABC-13:

In what is called a subrogation claim, the city wants to collect hundreds of thousands of dollars in benefits it paid to the families of the fallen firefighters. When that came to light a few weeks ago, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner adamantly said the city was not pursuing that money. But now [the city] appears unwilling to simply walk away from the approximately $1.5 million.

In court documents, Hall said the city demanded that he give up the fee he earned in that five-year-long litigation as a condition of the city giving up its lien on the dead firefighter’s estate.

The city’s demands on him have been “contradictory and confusing,” Hall wrote. “The city claims that by law it is entitled to be paid back workers compensation and death benefits it paid out” in connection with Bebee’s death.

The mayor pledged in July to drop any such collection efforts. “The city is not pursuing any liens on the firefighters or their families,” a city spokeswoman told The Texas Monitor.

Patrick “Marty” Lancton, head of the Houston firefighters union, asked the mayor to go further, and to send a letter to families releasing any city claims.

“We then went to city council the following week. We went with the families of our fallen and injured. We were told that the families were lying [about city collection efforts],” Lancton said. But, “There were liens, it turns out, like we had stated.”

Hall, in his court filing, said that instead of providing the letter to families that Lancton had asked for, the city hired an outside lawyer who demanded that Hall and other lawyers give up their fees “as a condition for waiver of the city’s lien.” This, he wrote, in spite of the fact that “the city did not spend a dime in Mrs. Bebee’s litigation investigating the facts surrounding the fire” nor offered to reimburse her for the costs of that investigation.

The monitoring of lawsuits stemming from the Southwest Inn fire began during the administration of former Mayor Annise Parker. The city quietly hired an attorney to claw back money on any settlements reached, so the city could be reimbursed for the costs it incurred for the firefighters’ medical care.

The city’s final threat, Hall said, was to hold Hall liable for the whole amount the city is seeking, if he doesn’t agree to waive the fees he has earned. Hall opposed Turner in the 2015 mayoral election.

Hall also said the city should do more to prevent the families of city employees who work in harm’s way from facing such claims in the future.

“When you have a municipality where expected death is on the job description of the employee — and we’re talking about firefighters and police officers — should you have a policy that says when the job robs you of life, that the city permanently waives any recoveries, any subrogation rights against the estates of the employees?” Hall said. “That should be the next step.”

Trent Seibert can be reached at [email protected] or at 832-258-6119.

 

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Trent is an award-winning editor and reporter, who has previously worked The Denver Post, The (Nashville) Tennessean, and the San Diego Union-Tribune. Most recently, he was the investigative producer for Houston’s KTRK-TV ABC-13. He was also the editor and founder of Texas Watchdog, a ground-breaking news group that paved the way for this project. Trent is a teacher of journalism skills, and has shown hundreds of reporters and citizen-journalists how to use public records, databases and journalism tools to keep a watchful eye on their own local government.

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