$4.6M Wrongful Death Settlement Puts Focus on Industry Best Practices

SAN FRANCISO — The widow of a firefighter who was one of four people killed in a 2007 house fire in San Pablo, Calif., will be paid $4.6 million to settle her wrongful-death lawsuit against two security companies she blamed for mishandling the initial report of the fire, according to a newspaper report.

The settlement, approved Feb. 8 by a Contra Costa County judge, is the latest related to what has been called the county’s worst firefighting tragedy. The disaster can serve to highlight best practices that installing security contractors should always employ in order to prevent loss of life and liability concerns, according to experts SSI spoke with about the case.

An early morning house fire near San Francisco on July 21, 2007, killed Fire Engineer Scott Desmond, 37, of Brentwood, Calif. and Capt. Matt Burton, 34, of Concord, Calif. They were the first firefighters in the Contra Costa district’s history to be killed in the line of duty. Delbert Moore, 67, and his wife, Gayle, 62, also perished in the blaze, which investigators concluded was caused by a cigarette in a bedroom that ignited combustible material.

Desmond’s widow, Carolyn, and her son sued in Contra Costa County Superior Court in 2008, saying Pinnacle Security of Orem, Utah, and its monitoring subcontractor Security Associates Int’l (SAI) of Arlington Heights, Ill., were to blame for the firefighter’s death.

The San Francisco Chronicle reported the following details from the lawsuit:

When the fire broke out, SAI received an automatic smoke alarm from the home, newspaper reported. A company employee identified only as Kendra activated a two-way intercom at the home and asked, “Is everything OK?”

Gayle Moore responded, “No, we have a fire,” said the suit filed by Walnut Creek, Calif., attorney Andrew Schwartz.

The SAI monitor phoned the Contra Costa County Fire Protection District on a nonemergency line and said, “I’m calling to report a fire alarm,” as opposed to an actual fire, the suit said. That led the fire dispatcher to consider it a lower-priority call, the suit said.

At one point, Kendra was put on hold for five minutes while the dispatcher answered emergency calls and the fire in the Moore home grew, the suit said.

It was nearly 10 minutes after Gayle Moore spoke to the alarm company before firefighters were sent to the scene, and even then only one engine was initially dispatched, with Desmond and Burton aboard, the suit said.

Pinnacle Security will pay $2.6 million to Desmond’s family, and SAI will pay $2 million. The companies will pay an additional $350,000 to settle a lawsuit filed by the Moores’ children, according to the newspaper.

The case amplifies the need for all alarm contractors to have properly trained and supervised employees in all aspects of their business, including system design, installation, maintenance, central station monitoring and more, says forensic alarm expert Jeffrey Zwirn, CPP, of Teaneck, N.J.-based IDS Research & Development Inc.

“It is mission-critical to have the right policies and procedures in place before an alarm event is received by the remote station,” he says.

The central station operator likely became the centerpiece of the causation argument by the plaintiffs as a result of her actions or inactions, Zwirn says.

“Firefighters respond differently to alarms based on how they are advised. For example, in this case there was an actual fire in progress. The people in the home reported the information to the central station and the signal was not a false alarm,” he says.  

To help minimize loss to end-user subscribers — and in this case, the estates of the responding firefighters — the industry needs to proactively understand all of its duties and responsibilities before a loss occurs, Zwirn says.

Ken Kirschenbaum, who pens SSI‘s “Legal Briefing,” says Pinnacle’s case settlement makes it’s difficult to gauge what liability protection the may have had in its contracts.

“We don’t know if they have proper contracts in place. What I’m suspecting is that the insurance companies ended up folding quickly because they were concerned with the exposure that was presented,” he says.


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