Wednesday, September 27, 2023
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Widows Say CalFire Concealed Benefits

SACRAMENTO (CN) - The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection has denied and intentionally concealed death benefits for families of 14 fire pilots killed in the line of duty since 2002, the families claim in court.

Lead plaintiff Judy Willett and 15 other survivors accuse two high-ranking Cal Fire officials of ordering employees to conceal a Cal Fire benefits program for years, while promising to help them "obtain all available death benefits" for the men who died fighting wildfires.

Ten of the plaintiffs are widows. The others are parents and siblings.

In addition to concealing the state benefits, they say, Cal Fire told the families to apply for federal death benefits, knowing they would not qualify. Cal Fire assigned managers to help the families apply for federal benefits and "pursue an emotionally painful and ultimately futile appeal process," according to the Oct. 30 lawsuit in Superior Court.

The complaint details an exchange between defendant Cal Fire Director Ken Pimlott and Assistant Chief Mike Ramirez, who was in charge of the department's funeral policy and helping plaintiffs through the appeal process. The families say Pimlott directed Ramirez to extend the "futile appeal process" and withhold the death benefits program. Ramirez is not a party to the lawsuit.

"Assistant Chief Ramirez understood that he would be disciplined and his career placed in jeopardy if he did not comply with defendant Pimlott," the complaint states.

Ramirez was fired after an investigation revealed he allowed cadets to drink on duty and failed to address sexual harassment accusations against fellow employees. He was the highest-ranking of 15 Cal Fire employees fired or demoted this year after an investigation by the California Highway Patrol into drinking and sexual misconduct at Cal Fire's Ione department.

An administrative judge upheld Ramirez's firing in October; he is expected to appeal.

Cal Fire spokeswoman Janet Upton told Courthouse News the department has not seen the new lawsuit, but that "the allegations regarding any cover-up [of benefits] are false."

The families of the 14 contracted pilots say Cal Fire helped with funeral expenses, including providing state and local law enforcement personnel and government vehicles.

Plaintiffs' attorneys, Goyette & Associates of Gold River, could not be reached for comment Tuesday. Plaintiffs seek a writ of mandate ordering Cal Fire to provide a one-time death benefit, attorney's fees and special damages for fraud, intentional and negligent misrepresentation, false promises, and breaches of fiduciary duty.

Also named as defendants are Chief Deputy Director Janet Barentson and former Director Del Walters.

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