Arizona Denies Liability in 19 Fire Deaths | Courthouse News Service
Thursday, November 30, 2023
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Arizona Denies Liability in 19 Fire Deaths

PHOENIX (CN) - Arizona asked a federal judge to toss a lawsuit from families of 19 firefighters killed in the Yarnell Hill Fire.

The state claims it is immune because the families may seek workers' compensation benefits, and a "firefighter's rule" precludes damages from state negligence.

The lawsuit, filed in Maricopa County Court and then removed to Federal Court, names Arizona, the Arizona State Forestry Division, Yavapai County, the Central Yavapai Fire District, and individuals Todd Abel, Roy Hall, and Ross Shumate as defendants.

Nineteen members of the 20-person crew were killed in June 2013 after trying to deploy fire shelters when the lightning-caused fire changed directions. The sole survivor - a lookout - was rescued by another hotshot crew.

On Friday, Arizona filed a motion claiming it has immunity from wrongful death claims because the firefighters were employed by the state through an intergovernmental agreement between the Prescott Fire Department and the Arizona State Land Department - Fire Management Division and may seek benefits only through workers' compensation claims.

The state also cites a "firefighter's rule" in alleging immunity, a rule that "protects from liability a party whose negligence allegedly caused or contributed to a fire, which in turn caused the death or injury to a professional firefighter fighting the fire."

According to the families' amended complaint, defendants Hall and Shumate - both incident commanders - "placed plaintiffs' decedents in a position of danger to which they otherwise would not have been exposed."

Shumate allegedly declined the use of a large air tanker to drop retardant on the fire, and Hall failed to conduct an incident action plan, the families claim.

The fire burned about 8,400 acres between June 28 and July 10, destroying 127 buildings in Yarnell and three buildings in neighboring Peeples Valley.

In December, the Industrial Commission of Arizona fined the state $559,000 after finding the Forestry Division responsible for the deaths of the firefighters.

"For several reasons, these assertions fail to satisfy the first prong necessary to overcome qualified immunity," the state argues. "In the first place, there is no constitutional right to a safe workplace. And a state actor is not obligated by the Constitution to protect public employees from inherent job-related risks of injury even where the increased risk of injury results from a state actor's deliberate indifference."

The state says the firefighters did not opt out of workers' compensation benefits and were employees of the state when they died, so the only remedy the families can receive are workers' compensation benefits.

The state also argues that because it failed to stop the fire on the two days before the firefighters were killed, the "firefighter's rule bars the wrongful-death claim."

The rule applies only when the firefighter's presence on the scene results from the firefighter's duties.

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