A lawsuit seeking $2 million in damages from the Warrenton Volunteer Fire Company and several of its members can proceed to trial, a judge ruled Monday. The lawsuit comes in the wake of a criminal sexual misconduct incident that took place three years ago. A date for a trial or the next pre-trial hearing has not yet been set.
The plaintiff, a then-16-year-old victim of a sexual offense while volunteering at the fire station in 2018, has alleged that the organization and its leaders did nothing to protect her despite clear warnings that she was in danger of being sexually assaulted.
In dozens of pages of written pleadings and during almost two hours of oral arguments Monday, attorneys representing the fire company and four of the five volunteer firefighters named in the suit argued that the organization and its members could not be liable at all under the doctrines of “sovereign immunity” and “charitable immunity.”
The attorneys, David Corrigan and Melissa York of Harman Claytor Corrigan & Wellman, argued that the fire company is legally inseparable from the Fauquier County government and therefore could not be sued for negligence. Despite being a private nonprofit organization, the fire company gets the vast majority of its funding from tax dollars; the town of Warrenton contributed $231,000 this year to the station and Fauquier County added $414,000.
They also argued the victim was receiving “charitable services” in the form of job training at the time she was the victim of a sexual offense, therefore making her ineligible to sue the organization or its members. Even if the fire company and its members could be held liable in theory, they argued, the defendants in the lawsuit had no legal duty to supervise or protect the victim.
While he did not rule on the merits of the factual allegations put forth by the victim’s attorneys, 20th Circuit Court Judge James Plowman disagreed with the defendants’ legal arguments in almost every instance and ruled that the basis of the lawsuit is legitimate.
At one point, for instance, York argued that allowing the case to proceed “would greatly deter employers hiring people under the age of 18.”
Plowman responded: “Or encourage them to supervise them better,” one of several instances in which Plowman pressed the fire company’s attorneys to back up their arguments.
The case stems from a sexual misconduct incident that occurred in the early morning hours of July 8, 2018. A female volunteer – the plaintiff in the lawsuit -- then 16 years old, was a participant in the organization’s “junior first responder program” and stayed overnight at the station to gain experience running calls as an EMT, according to the initial civil complaint filed in October 2020.
Her mother had been promised by then WVFC Fire Chief Jason Golden that she would be staying in sleeping quarters for females only and that there would be an adult woman member on duty to supervise her, the complaint alleges.
Erick Lemus, a then-22-year-old volunteer who was not on duty that night but who was staying at the station, eventually pressured the girl into a sexual encounter despite her repeated protestations, according to Warrenton Police Department investigative records related to the incident.
Charged by Warrenton police with one misdemeanor count of having sexual relations with a child, Lemus eventually pleaded guilty and was sentenced to three months in jail, though he claimed to Golden that the incident was “consensual,” according to police records. Lemus was not required to register as a sex offender or pay restitution to the victim. He is no longer a member of the fire company.
The 2020 lawsuit names Lemus and Golden along with Jimmy Daugherty and Brandon Rohwer – the two highest-ranking members present at the station during the incident – and Chris Sager, the head of the junior first responder program at the time of the incident. (Corrigan and York represent all the defendants besides Lemus.)
The one victory for the defense on Monday came when Plowman ruled that the plaintiff had not presented evidence that Sager was present at the station during Lemus’ offense – and therefore Sager could not be vicariously liable for failing to protect Lemus’ victim based on the allegations in the complaint.
Sager, the lawsuit alleges, was in a sexual relationship with another child volunteer at the time of Lemus’ 2018 offense and had allegedly bought alcohol for underage volunteers at an event in the hours before the incident. The complaint did not allege specifically that he was present in the building during Lemus’ offense.
The victim’s attorneys, Connor Bleakley and Seth Carroll of Commonwealth Law Group, have 21 days to appeal the decision. In an email Monday afternoon, Bleakley said he had not yet decided whether to file an amended complaint that asserts more facts about Sager’s involvement in the 2018 incident.
Bleakley argued on Monday that the victim was clearly in danger of being sexually assaulted while alone in a bunkroom at the station, despite Golden’s alleged assurances that strict policies were in place to protect child volunteers. “Any of the adult men working there that night would be able to go into her room, essentially … unopposed,” Bleakley argued.
This danger should have been particularly evident to the fire company’s leaders because of Sager’s ongoing and open sexual relationship with a child volunteer, Bleakley alleged. “All of them knew that this place was unsafe for minors,” he said. “In fact, the head of [the junior first responder program] was in an open relationship with a minor.”
Golden, he continued “made some pretty specific promises” to the victim’s mother before the mother would let her child stay at the station overnight – therefore making the organization and some of its authorities liable. “They had knowledge of the danger she was in and chose not to intervene,” Bleakley argued.
The fire company’s attorneys did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
Last month, the attorneys issued the following statement: “The Warrenton Volunteer Fire Company has filed pleadings setting forth our position in this litigation. The organization and its members named as parties to the lawsuit dispute many of the allegations in the Complaint. There will be no further comment at this time.”
Reach Coy Ferrell at firstname.lastname@example.org