Southwest Inn fire: City will not pursue liens to recoup money spent on medical care

HOUSTON – A law firm hired by the city in 2016 moved to recoup medical expenses for firefighters killed and injured in the Southwest Inn fire by filing liens on their estates.

The filing was not well known until recently, and Thursday, Mayor Sylvester Turner said the city would release the liens and not attempt to collect from the estates.

The fire caused the greatest loss of life in Houston Fire Department history on May 31, 2013.

Four firefighters, Robert Bebee, Anne Sullivan, Robert Garner and Matthew Renaud died at the scene of the fire on the Southwest Freeway near Hilcroft. A fifth, Captain Bill Dowling, was badly maimed and died in 2017.

Firefighter Robert Yarbrough was severely injured and was hospitalized for more than a year before being forced to retire as a result of his injuries. He says he only learned this week that the city had filed a lien against him.

“They’re trying to get paid all the medical bills, all the doctor visits, all the medicine doctors prescribed. Anything workers comp paid for or the city paid for,” Yarbrough said.

KPRC2 obtained a letter written in Feb. 2016, by the Pappas & Suchma law firm which had been hired by the city,  sent to attorney Ben Hall, who represents Yarbrough and relatives of Bebee, Sullivan, and Garner during negotiations over the liens. The letter says in part:

“The city has considered your offer and they have politely declined. Instead, and despite the fact they are entitled to considerably more under the Texas Labor Code and interpreting case law, they are willing to significantly reduce their liens and accept the following to resolve these matters:

  • Bebee - $20,000
  • Sullivan - $20,000
  • Garner - $20,000
  • Yarbrough - $50,000

 File: Lien Letter

The same year, the firm also filed a court document seeking more than $2.5 million from Dowling.

File: COH Plea in Intervention

"To come out, and say, 'OK, now you owe the city. What more can you pay the city?'” Yarbrough said.

Marty Lancton, President of the Houston Professional Firefighters Association, sent a letter to the mayor Thursday saying, in part, that “Houston firefighters were astonished to learn that the city had filed liens against the estates of fallen Houston firefighters.” The letter asks for assurances that the liens will be released.

“What we’ve asked for is for the mayor to confirm and publicly acknowledge that there is a release of any and all liens,” Lancton said.

File: HPFFA Letter Liens

On Thursday afternoon, Turner said the legal maneuvering over the liens occurred before he took office, and said the city will not pursue them.

“I have not authorized, and neither will I authorize, the legal department, or anyone on behalf of the legal department, to attempt to collect on any lien from the Southwest Inn fire on any of the family that were impacted from that fire," Turner said.