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Virginia city escapes lawsuit alleging defective hydrant helped cause death of man in fire

State Court

By Karen Kidd | Jan 7, 2020

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RICHMOND, Va. (Legal Newsline) – A southeastern Virginia city is immune from liability for the death of a 48-year-old man in an early 2017 house fire, the Virginia Supreme Court recently ruled.

In its nine-page opinion issued Dec. 12, the Virginia Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the city of Petersburg, Virginia, is entitled to sovereign immunity in negligence claims arising from a defective fire hydrant in the death of Corey Demetrius Massenburg.

Massenburg died in the house fire Jan. 24, 2017, and his father, Sam Massenburg, subsequently filed a wrongful death suit. 


Virginia Supreme Court Justice William Cleveland Mims | jmu.edu

The opinion states that firefighters quickly arrived to Corey Demetrius Massenburg's residence, the fire hydrant closest to the property "was effectively inoperable" because it was not receiving an adequate flow of water. The original complaint alleged that the city failed to notify residents its infrastructure was inadequate.

The Supreme Court found that the trial court had not been wrong when it granted Petersburg's demurrer and plea in bar of sovereign immunity and dismissed Massenburg’s complaint with prejudice.

"The city's provision and maintenance of fire hydrants is therefore an immune governmental function," the opinion said. "Moreover, to the extent that this governmental function coincides with the city's proprietary functions in Massenburg’s surviving allegations, 'the governmental function is the overriding factor and the doctrine of sovereign immunity will shield the locality from liability.'"

Virginia Supreme Court Justice William C. Mims wrote the unanimous opinion

Sam Massenburg appealed Petersburg Circuit Court Judge Joseph M. Teefey Jr.'s ruling that emergency calls for fires is an immune governmental function and that sovereign immunity barred the wrongful death lawsuit.

Sam Massenburg appealed, arguing the Teefey had been wrong to not hold a jury trial on the city’s plea in bar and to issue the ruling on sovereign immunity barring his complaint.

"The trial court did not err in deciding the city's plea in bar on the pleadings because the city did not dispute the complaint's factual allegations," the Supreme Court's opinion said. "It also properly granted the city's demurrer and plea in bar of sovereign immunity because Massenburg's complaint alleged negligence arising from the city's immune governmental function of providing and maintaining fire hydrants."

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