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Los Angeles County FF’s widow sues homeowner, architect for unpermitted addition

The complaint states an unpermitted addition allowed fire to spread, “creating a trap” for Firefighter Jonathan Flagler

By Josh Cain

LOS ANGELES COUNTY, Calif. — The family of a firefighter who suffered a heart attack and died while responding to a house fire in Rancho Palos Verdes two years ago has settled with Los Angeles County for nearly $3 million.

Jonathan Flagler, 47, went into cardiopulmonary arrest while suffocating after his SCBA tank that had run out of air as he fought the fire alone inside the home on Tarapaca Road in January 2022, according to a coroner’s office report of his death.

Later, a Los Angeles County Fire Department report examining how Flagler died showed his crewmates lost track of him and did not hear the alarm triggered when his tank started to run out of air. For more than 10 minutes, Flagler was left alone inside the home that was quickly filling up with smoke, until his fellow firefighters found him not breathing in a bathroom, the report said.

RELATED: LACoFD firefighter dies from injuries suffered in house fire

The county settled with Flagler’s wife, Jennifer, and his two sons out of court for $2.95 million, according to the Board of Supervisors’ Sept. 18, 2023 closed session agenda.

Attorneys for Jennifer Flagler declined requests for comment on the settlement.

Now, the firefighter’s family is suing the owners of the home where Jonathan Flagler died.

In a complaint filed in L.A. County Superior Court on Dec. 29, Jennifer Flagler said the fire was “caused by an unpermitted building addition that allowed the fire to spread undetected in the walls of the home creating a trap for Firefighter Flagler that ultimately killed him.”

Fire officials confirmed the fire began with an electrical malfunction in a wall of the home. But the homeowner, Timothy Racisz, denied Friday that there were any unpermitted additions to the home that led to the fire.

Racisz said his family had owned the home since the 1960s. The only addition was a covered patio his parents had built in 1979. He said the patio was permitted and inspected.

He said the fire started in a wall separating the laundry room and bedroom, gutting the interior and forcing the family to tear down most of what remained to the home’s foundation.

“This is our family home — it’s been in the family since the house was built new in the 60s,” Racisz said. “My family has attachments to it. I have attachments to it.”

Racisz and his wife lived out of a rental for more than a year while the Tarapaca Road house was rebuilt. They have now returned while construction continues.

Having lost most of his home in the fire, Racisz said he felt unfairly targeted by the lawsuit.

“I feel like it would have been better to not call the fire department at all,” he said.

The complaint filed last week did not cite any specific permits Racisz failed to get for his home. Attorneys for Jennifer Flagler declined to answer questions about what permits Racisz should have had.

In the complaint, attorneys said that Racisz oversaw “extensive electrical modifications” while living at the home, which included the installation of solar panels. The L.A. County Fire report did not give a cause for the electrical malfunction.

The attorneys also said in the complaint that the home lacked “essential fire-mitigation elements,” without stating what those elements should have been.

Typically, police officers and firefighters injured or killed on the job are barred from collecting damages from people who caused the incident they were responding to, even if the person did so out of negligence or recklessness. That’s known as “the fireman’s rule.”

According to the California Law Review, the common law rule holds that emergency workers assume the risks inherent in their jobs and volunteer to go into dangerous situations. Emergency workers for public agencies, and their families, also are entitled to collect benefits from their workplaces when they are injured or killed in the line of duty, barring them from collecting additional damages through tort claims.

California law carves out some exceptions to the fireman’s rule, allowing emergency workers to seek tort claims under certain scenarios.

According to the state’s civil code, arsonists specifically are not covered under this rule, opening them up to liability. Firefighters and officers may also sue people who intentionally injure them after they arrive at a scene.

Anyone who commits a crime unrelated to the reason the emergency workers are responding may also face litigation if their actions injure emergency workers.

In September 2021, Los Angeles Fire Department Captain Victor Aguirre and his wife sued the owner of a building on Boyd Street in Downtown L.A., and the business owners operating there, after a smoke and vape shop exploded in 2020, leaving Aguirre with severe burns and without the use of his hands.

In that suit, the Aguirres accused the defendants of illegally storing numerous butane canisters and nitrous oxide cylinders that ignited while LAFD firefighters were dousing a routine structure fire at the building.

Racisz said he anticipated possibly facing a lawsuit that included him as a codefendant with L.A. County.

“I did not expect a lawsuit of (Flagler’s) family against me,” Racisz said. “That’s the biggest shock to me about this. We feel that we’re victims of a fire.”

Attorneys for Jennifer Flagler declined to answer questions about the fireman’s rule on the record.

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