The legal battle involving the traumatic death of Lorri Riehm, caused at the hands of a private volunteer firefighter continues on. On December 21, 2018, our firm, along with Paul W. Flowers & Assocs., appealed the divisive case to the Ohio Supreme Court.
What Happened When a Firefighter Disregarded Safety Rules
On June 28, 2016, while Lorri was walking on trails at Beaver Creek Reservoir, Seth Knieriemen, a Green Springs volunteer firefighter, placed his pickup in reverse and, despite screams from other firefighters to stop, ran over Lorri, crushing and killing her. There was no active emergency going on at the time Knieriemen did this.
Her husband, Paul Riehm, sought answers from Green Springs and received none. He consulted attorneys, who refused to take on the case. When he contacted our firm, we instantly recognized how challenging this case would be but had no hesitation in taking it on. Boyk attorney Wes Merillat welcomed the case, stating, “a clear wrong was committed that resulted in the loss of life and devastated loved ones. You don’t turn your back on that, no matter how hard the fight.”
The Wrongful Death Claim for the Rear End Accident
A wrongful death court battle ensued over the rear end pedestrian accident. Substantial evidence was discovered that the firefighter failed to comply with training requirements and admittedly disregarded safety rules about the operation of fire apparatus, including the backing up of trucks and use of spotters. Green Spring’s insurance counsel argued that while Lorri’s death was tragic, a jury could not hold the firefighter liable since as a firefighter, he “enjoys” absolute immunity from his actions.
Trial Court Judge Michael Kelbley disagreed, finding that a jury could in fact determine Knieriemen was reckless. The Court recognized that Knieriemen knew there were pedestrians at the reservoir, knew the truck had obstructed vision out the rear and yet never advised anyone he was backing up; did not activate the siren or honk the horn to alert people. He never did a walk around the vehicle to check if it was clear. He never requested a spotter. He had access to a radio and never alerted anyone or asked for assistance. He admitted he just operated under the presumption that people were watching out for him.
Are Firefighters Immune from Negligence?
Green Spring’s insurance counsel filed an appeal, arguing the trial court erred. Specifically, Green Springs and Knieriemen argued that even if the emergency nature of the call no longer existed, the mere fact that the firefighters were still at the scene permitted them to continue to enjoy absolute immunity from any negligent harm they caused the public. They also claimed that while Knieriemen may have arguably been negligent in killing Knieriemen, no “reasonable mind” could conclude his conduct rose to the level of being considered “reckless” – which triggers an exception to political immunity.
The Third District Court of Appeals heard the case and issued a divided ruling. Judge Shaw acknowledged that case was tragic and that it is evident that Knieriemen’s conduct could constitute negligence, but effectively opined that even if there was no active emergency, Knieriemen was still at the scene of the emergency and thus entitled to immunity unless it could be shown he was at all reckless in causing Lorri’s death.
How Does a Firefighter’s Immunity Impact a Claim?
Judge Shaw, who Judge Preston concurred with, determined that “reasonable minds could only conclude that [Knieriemen’s] conduct demonstrates, at most, negligence”. Interesting, Judge Zimmerman issued a dissent, disagreeing with Judge Shaw, calling his reasoning “flawed” and asserting that the majority “mischaracterized crucial evidence”. Judge Zimmerman, like Judge Kelbley, determined that reasonable minds could conclude that Knieriemen’s conduct was reckless.
Despite two seasoned Judges concluding that “reasonable minds could differ” and finding that the case should be submitted to a jury for determination, Judges Shaw and Preston refused to reconsider their position and maintained that “no reasonable minds could differ” from them and the matter should be dismissed.
The Next Steps in the Wrongful Death Appeal
Wes Merillat expressed frustration with the ruling, but refused to waive the flag. “This case is about obtaining justice for Lorri Riehm and her family. It is about protecting the public. And it is about protecting hard working and honorable public servants from bad actors who seek to erode the important aspects of political immunity. We will pursue this case to its very end.”