Las Vegas POA

Firefighters, Families Lose Lawsuit Over Fatal House Fire

Written on 04/08/2021
Will Aitchison

Three firefighters perished in a house fire that occurred on September 24, 2016 in the City of Wilmington, Delaware. Three other firefighters were badly injured in the same fire.

The three injured firefighters – Fire­fighter Brad Speakman, Senior Fire­fighter Terrance Tate, and Lieutenant John Cawthray – as well as the estates and survivors of the three deceased fire­fighters – Lieutenant Christopher Leach, Senior Firefighter Jerry Fickes, and Se­nior Firefighter Ardythe Hope – filed a lawsuit against the City and various City officials. At the heart of the lawsuit were three substantive due process claims: (1) a “state-created danger” claim; (2) a “shocks the conscience” claim; and (3) a “maintenance of policies, practices and customs” claim. In essence, the claims were rooted in the factual assertion that Wilmington’s mayor had failed to implement staffing and equipment mandates from the Wilmington City Council.

The federal Third Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed the lawsuit. The Court noted that “the Supreme Court has always been reluctant to expand the concept of substantive due process because guideposts for responsible decision-making in this uncharted area are scarce and open-ended. We have concluded that, while the Due Process Clause does not guarantee public employees certain minimal levels of safety and security, a government employee may bring a substantive due process claim against his employer if the state compelled the employee to be exposed to a risk of harm not inherent in the workplace.

“Plaintiffs particularly emphasize the separation of powers in the structure of Wilmington’s city government. They claim that this novel case presents the question of what happens when the executive branch refuses to execute and abide by statutory resource allocation and workplace safety decisions.

“We acknowledge that the separation of legislative, executive, and judicial powers has played a critical role in our history and in how Americans have sought to protect individual liberty. However, Plaintiffs are attempting to rely on the separation of powers between the different branches of a local government chartered under state law in order to bring a federal court action asserting substantive due process claims under the 14th Amendment of the United States Constitution. At the very least, Plaintiffs do not identify any cases allowing these types of claims, and they certainly do not cite any case law based on the alleged refusal of the public employer’s executive officials to execute funding decisions and directives adopted by the employer’s legislative body.

“We recognize that this case involves a tragedy, and we express no opinion as to whether Plaintiffs may have any remedies under Delaware law. However, because Plaintiffs did not allege a cognizable claim under the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment, we will affirm the orders of the District Court dismissing the lawsuit.”

Speakman v. Williams, 2021 WL 49947 (3d Cir. 2021).

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