Widow of fallen Ill. firefighter sues for wrongful death; city says it's not liable
Brittney C. Ramos says her husband, Lt. Garrett Ramos, died as a result of the Sterling chief and deputy fire chief not following proper procedures
By Kathleen A. Schultz
MORRISON, Ill. — The widow of a Sterling firefighter killed in a December 2021 residential fire in December 2021 has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the city of Rock Falls and the two lead firefighters at the scene.
Brittney C. Ramos maintains in her lawsuit that Lt. Garrett Ramos died as a result of the fire chief and deputy fire chief not following proper procedures.
But the city of Rock Falls, Fire Chief Cris Bouwens and Deputy Chief Ken Wolf, who are all named as defendants, counter that they have immunity under Illinois law. They also said Ramos was partially responsible for missteps he made that contributed to his death in the Dec. 3, 2021 fire.
Brittney Ramos, who is seeking in excess of $50,000 in damages, filed her suit in Whiteside County Court on Dec. 1, 2022 — three days before the one-year anniversary of her husband's death.
Ramos was discovered unresponsive and out of air in the basement of the home about 30 minutes after two of his mayday calls went unanswered.
A year ago, in April 2021, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration released its initial incident report, dated March 8, outlining multiple "willful" errors made during the fire. The final report was released in December, and as a result, the cities of Sterling and Rock Falls paid a combined $36,000 in fines for "lapses" in each department's policies and procedures.
Those lapses that contributed to Ramos' death from "asphyxia caused by inhalation of products of combustion due to a structure fire," the report said.
OSHA releases updated report on Ill. firefighter's line-of-duty death
The new version contains Sterling and Rock Falls' responses to criticisms levied by OSHA related to the death of firefighter Lt. Garrett Ramos
While the direct cause of Ramos' death was "exposure to respiratory hazards," the indirect causes were a failure "to identify the presence or absence of a basement," and a failure to ensure that firefighters entering the home "were operating on the designated [radio]frequency," among others, OSHA said.
Among other things, Ramos' suit cites the OSHA findings, and also cites Bouwens' failure to assess that the home at 10031 Ridge Road had a basement.
"One of the most basic responsibilities of a supervising firefighter is to immediately determine if a structure has a basement before directing firefighters into the structure," it says.
"This information is vitally important because a basement increases the risk that the fire will damage the floor beneath the firefighters, and in-turn increase the risk of the floor collapsing resulting in serious injury or death ..."
The suit also accuses Bouwens and Wolf of failing to call off firefighting efforts when the garage was destroyed and the home was engulfed, when part of the roof collapsed, when part of the floor collapsed and when the fire was deemed under control.
Each time, "there was absolutely no need to risk RFFor SFD personnel to remain in a home that contained no occupants and was not salvageable," it says.
It also cites their failure to identify and find Ramos after he made two mayday calls in the wake of the floor collapse.
Such errors constitute "willful and wanton violations of accepted firefighting practices," the suit says.
That language is important, because under the terms of the Illinois Tort Immunity Act, neither the city nor its employees can be held liable"for any injuries cause by any acts or omissions while engaged in fighting a fire, absent proof that the defendants engaged in willful and wanton conduct," their attorneys, Michael Kujawa and Deborah Ostvig of Schain, Banks, Kenny & Schwartz Ltd. of Chicago, say in their response to Ramos' complaint.
The same holds true for any failure to supervise or negligent supervision, or for using their discretion in deciding how, when and where to fight a fire, the response says.
"Clearly, the decisions made by defendants in determining how to fight the fire ... all necessarily entailed the balancing of competing interests, i.e., available resources, its obligations to the owners of the subject property and the safety of the firefighters. This balancing process, and all the decisions stemming therefrom, are discretionary in nature."
The defense also asserts that Bouwens, Wolf and the city were not the proximate cause of Ramos' death, and that he "was under a duty to exercise reasonable care and caution for his own safety."
Ramos "failed to ensure that his radio was on the correct channel; failed to remain with his partners while fighting the subject fire; failed to refill is oxygen tank in a timely manner; and otherwise failed to exercise reasonable care and caution for his own safety," it says.
"Because decedent Garrett Ramos is more than fifty percent (50%) at fault in causing his own accident and injuries, his recovery is barred," the defense maintains.
Should Brittney Ramos win a judgment for damages, it should be reduced based on her husband's role in his own death, the response says.
A motion to dismiss the suit was denied on March 29. The next case management conference is July 17.
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