HOUSTON — An attorney for the families of a group of firefighters who died after battling a 2013 Houston hotel fire accused the city on Friday of trying to recoup medical costs and other expenses from the families by filing liens against them, calling the action "heartless."
However, Houston City Attorney Ron Lewis said the city never put any liens on the firefighters or their families but has instead sought to regain these costs from those responsible for the fire.
The May 31, 2013, fire was the deadliest day in the Houston Fire Department's history. Four firefighters were killed while battling a blaze that started at a restaurant but spread to an adjoining hotel. More than a dozen firefighters were injured. A fifth firefighter died from his injuries in 2017.
Ben Hall, an attorney who represents the families of the four firefighters who died the day of the blaze and another firefighter who was severely injured, alleged the city had initially requested between $50,000 and $96,000 from each of his clients. The liens were first filed in court documents in 2015, during the administration of Mayor Sylvester Turner's predecessor.
"I protested that and said this is really heartless that you all would even try to get money out of the coffins of the dead firefighters and asked them to forgive the liens," Hall said. "The families had already endured enough."
Marty Lancton, president of the Houston Professional Firefighters Association, said any attempt to take money from firefighters "who have given their life in the line of duty ... is never acceptable, not for a penny."
Hall said the firefighters' families reached out to the city, asking it to forgive the liens.
Lewis said the city never told the firefighters' families that "we're going to personally put some kind of lien on you and your property."
The idea the city is trying to "take money from the firefighters and doing so in some insidious and villainous way" is incorrect, Lewis said.
Texas law allows cities like Houston in workers compensation cases to recover medical and other costs from the parties responsible for injuries to a city employee.
Houston filed a claim or a lien against the owners of the restaurant and the hotel to compensate the city for medical and other costs that had been paid to the firefighters, Lewis said. Those claims have been settled by the city, he said.
"We certainly haven't asked the firefighters ... to go into their pockets and pay anything," Lewis said.
Hall disputed this claim, pointing to a February 2016 email he got from a law firm hired by the city that said the city was "willing to significantly reduce their liens" and accept reduced amounts from his clients "to resolve these matters."
The firefighters' families have a lawsuit pending against Motorola over claims the radios used during the fire were faulty. Lewis said the city has not asked for any compensation from Motorola in this lawsuit.
Hall said he expects the lawsuit against Motorola to soon be settled.