Houston, TX – In an effort to recoup medical expenses incurred in the line of duty, the city of Houston hired an attorney to file liens on the estates of firefighters who were killed or seriously injured during the 2013 Southwest Inn fire.
“When I saw it I immediately contacted…the fire department to see if this was really legit,” Houston City Council Member Michael Kubosh told KRIV. “I just couldn’t believe it.”
“Why would we file liens against the estate of people who have died in the service of our city?” Kubosh admonished. “It just seems so egregious to me.”
On May 31, 2013, the Southwest Inn fire caused the greatest loss of life in the history of the Houston Fire Department, KPRC reported.
Firefighters Anne Sullivan, Robert Bebee, Matthew Renaud, and Robert Garner died at the scene. Captain Bill Dowling was severely injured in the blaze, and died in 2017.
A sixth firefighter, Robert Yarbrough, survived the deadly fire but was so severely injured that he remained hospitalized for over a year and was no longer able to work.
This week, he learned that the city filed a lien against him.
“They’re trying to get paid all the medical bills, all the doctor visits, all the medicine doctors prescribed,” Yarbrough told KPRC. “Anything workers comp paid for or the city paid for.”
In a February, 2016 letter from Pappas & Suchma, the law firm hired by the city, to attorney Ben Hall, who represents Yarbrough and the families of Garner, Sullivan and Bebee, the city asked for $20,000 from each of the deceased firefighters’ estates.
From Yarbrough, they wanted $50,000.
“Despite the fact they are entitled to considerably more under the Texas Labor Code and interpreting case law, they are willing to significantly reduce their liens and accept [these amounts] to resolve these matters,” the letter read, according to KPRC.
Pappas & Suchma also filed court paperwork seeking over $2.5 million from Dowling, who was still alive when the request was made in 2016.
“[I was] pretty speechless, to be honest with you,” Houston Professional Firefighters Association President Marty Lancton told KRIV. “The word I used is ‘disgusting.’ If there is any attempt – ever – to put a lien or ask for money on the backs of firefighters that have given the ultimate sacrifice in the line of duty, there is no other word.”
On Thursday, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said that the establishment of the liens occurred before he took office, and that the city would be releasing them, KPRC reported.
“I have not authorized, and neither will I authorize, the legal department, or anyone on behalf of the legal department, to attempt to collect on any lien from the Southwest Inn fire on any of the family that were impacted from that fire," Turner said.