Suing for faulty fire fighting

Suing for faulty fire fighting

Ohio Briquetting LLC stamped briquettes from scrap titanium supplied by Titanium Metal Corp. On Nov. 15, 2002, an explosion and ensuing fire at Ohio Briquetting's plant in Oakwood Village, Ohio, caused significant damage to the company's facil

Ohio Briquetting LLC stamped briquettes from scrap titanium supplied by Titanium Metal Corp. On Nov. 15, 2002, an explosion and ensuing fire at Ohio Briquetting's plant in Oakwood Village, Ohio, caused significant damage to the company's facility, its landlord, and other tenants of the building.

The landlord and one of its tenants were insured by State Automobile Mutual Insurance Co., which paid $850,000 to repair their damages. State Auto sued Ohio Briquetting and Titanium Metal, alleging their combined negligence was responsible for the fire damage sustained by its policyholders.

Ohio Briquetting claimed Titanium was responsible for the explosion because it had supplied contaminated scrap titanium. The company brought the Oakwood Village Fire Department into the suit as an additional defendant, claiming the fire department was reckless in suppressing the chemical fire and thereby increased the property damage caused to the plaintiffs. Ohio Briquetting said the village was aware that zinc, titanium, and magnesium were stored at its facility, but the fire department still tried to douse the fire with water, even though such chemical fires require nonwater fire suppression.

The village asked the Ohio trial court to dismiss the complaint against it, arguing that, under Ohio law, political subdivisions like villages are immune from liability when engaged in a governmental function such as fire protection.

The trial court refused to dismiss the suit. Oakwood Village appealed to the Ohio Court of Appeals, which noted Ohio law provides that a political subdivision is not liable for personal injuries or property damage caused by an act or omission of its employees in connection with a governmental function. However, the court also said the State Supreme Court recognized a special-relationship exception, in which a political subdivision can be held liable for damages if it can be shown that a special relationship existed between the subdivision and the injured party.

Ohio Briquetting argued that a special relationship existed because the village and its then fire chief had personal knowledge of the types and amounts of chemical elements contained in its facility. The company also said its personnel approached the fire chief at the scene of the fire, reminded him of the chemicals in the building, and warned against using water as a fire suppressant. The fire department ignored the warning and violated its own fire code when it used water to suppress the fire.

Based on these allegations, the appellate court held that Ohio Briquetting had a special relationship between it and the village, and the company could take its claim against the village to trial.

State Automobile Mutual Insurance Co. v. Titanium Metals Corp., 823 N.E. 2d 934 (Ohio. App. 2004), Court of Appeals of Ohio, Dec. 9, 2004.

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