Brown v. City of Seattle & Pang

Case type:  Government Liability, Wrongful Death
Award: 
$5.6 million Verdict
Attorneys:  
Jack Connelly

Case Summary

Plaintiff James Brown, a City of Seattle firefighter, was killed while fighting a fire that arsonist defendant Martin Pang started in the basement of a warehouse owned by his parents and known as Mary Pang Food Products warehouse. Defendant Seattle Fire Department was informed of defendant Pang's plans to burn the warehouse and took no action to prevent the act. Defendant Seattle Fire Department recklessly endangered the lives of its firefighters, including plaintiff Brown, and was found liable for plaintiff Brown's death. 

In The News

Case Details

The City of Seattle Fire Department (SFD) responded to the fire at Mary Pang Food Products Warehouse, well after they had been told that an arsonist planned to burn down the building for insurance money, and sent firefighters into the warehouse on the second floor. Approximately 35 minutes later, the floor beneath the firefighters collapsed sending four firefighters to their deaths in the basement. (This case involved the claims of one of the four, James Thomas Brown, the youngest firefighter to die.)

Post incident investigation revealed the SFD had been warned ahead of time of reports by three separate informants that Def. Pang was going to set a fire in the basement to collect insurance money. However, SFD Arson Unit decided to let Def. Pang set the fire and, further, that the fire fighters who would be responding to the fire were not told of the arson threat. The acting chief who eventually became incident commander at the fire was told twice to familiarize himself with the building but did not do so. When the alarm was called in, firefighters were sent in on the second floor notwithstanding the fact that the department had been told the fire would start in the basement. Upon arrival at the scene, the incident commander neglected to do a required 360 inspection, size-up or to check the basement.

When the firefighters later discovered the raging basement fire, they were directed to put water on it. This resulted in a situation in which the firefighters on the second floor were above the blazing basement fire searching for the fire, while the firefighters on the lower level on the opposite side of the building were watching it burn uncontrolled. The firefighters on the second floor were left in the building well beyond the appropriate time period for a building with wood frame construction components. Building collapse should be anticipated in 20 minutes. The incident commander neglected to keep track of the time as required. The City Seattle was negligent in failing to follow its own arson policies and incident command system.

SFD had become more concerned about trying to catch a potential arsonist than in trying to prevent a fire and protect lives. Plff's attorney stated that evidence indicated SFD had adopted overly aggressive firefighting policies that were exposing firefighters to unnecessary/foolish risks. The Department Safety Officer testified that, shortly before the Pang fire, he had told senior officers that they were going to lose firefighters if they continued to fight fires in this manner.