Family attorney explains legal action against Dane County

Lawyer: Man 'would have lived had the response been timely'
Family attorney explains legal action against Dane County

Attorney Terrance Polich said he is ready to bring Dane County and its 911 center director to court.

“I would expect that at trial we would be able to prove that Chris would have lived had the response been timely,” Polich said.

Polich is representing the family of Chris Williams, who died in a south side Madison apartment fire when it took three minutes and 48 seconds to dispatch crews to the scene. That is more than two minutes longer than the national standard for getting firefighters to a structure fire.

The family has filed a notice of claim, which Polich explained is the legal way to reserve the right to sue the county for damages and demand other changes be made by the 911 center.

“The Williams family wants the problem solved,” Polich said. “They want an explanation about what happened, an explanation telling them what happened to delay the response in Chris’s case, and they want to make sure this doesn’t happen to anybody again in the future.”

The document specifically mentions Dane County, the county’s Public Safety Communications and 911 Center Director John Dejung.

According to the notice of claim, Williams’ brother and parents could sue the county for up to $250,000 in damages.

On top of that, Polich said the family is seeking significant changes to oversight and accountability for the 911 center.

“In some ways we’re acting as a private attorney general, trying to force the county to actually address this because the responses we’re getting so far don’t make any sense,” Polich said.

Specifically, the document asks for third-party supervision of Public Safety Communications, responses to all formal complaints to the 911 center, and routine and consistent audits.

Polich said he can’t foresee a settlement in his clients’ case without making those changes or addressing those issues to the same degree through other means.

“To date, we don’t have any assurance that they have investigated these matters, that they know the cause of the delays and the problems, and they have taken, as far as we can tell, no effective steps to address the problems,” Polich said.

Polich said he’s particularly concerned about the formal complaint filed for the fire that killed Williams. That complaint was submitted by Madison Assistant Fire Chief Lance Langer, and it was never answered.

“That has to be responded to. The dozens of other complaints need to be responded to,” Polich said. “We need to get the facts on the table so the problem can be solved.”

Polich said without litigation he fears a situation like Williams’ could happen again. He said the family called the county’s response to 911 center problems inexcusable and woefully inadequate.

Polich said Dane County attorneys and officials can reject the claim, ignore it or negotiate with the family.

If the claim is rejected, Polich said the family has six months from the time of rejection to file a lawsuit or take other legal action.

If the county ignores the claim, Polich said the family would have three years from the date of the fire to pursue anything in court. However, Polich said they would likely file sooner than that deadline.

“The family would prefer that the county step up to the plate, take care of the problem and compensate the family for their loss,” Polich said.

Representatives from the Dane County Executive’s Office declined comment, saying they cannot comment on ongoing litigation.