The fight over liens filed in connection to Southwest Inn fire

By Phil Archer - Reporter

HOUSTON - The Houston Fire Fighters Association is demanding written proof from Mayor Sylvester Turner that the city has released liens against the estates of 5 firefighters who were killed and one who was severely injured fighting the Southwest Inn fire in May 2013. 

The liens were filed two years after the fire during a previous administration.

Mayor Turner has said repeatedly that the city has not and will not seek money from the firefighters’ families. On Wednesday, Mayor Turner said in response to a question  from Councilman Michael Kubosh about the liens: 

“We’ve addressed this so many many time, the city is not seeking to collect anything.”

But according to court records, the city proposes making the release of the liens contingent on the lawyers not receiving attorney’s fees.  

The city’s position was laid out in a proposed WAIVER AND RELEASE OF SUBROGATION RIGHTS filed in connection with the lawsuit that says in part: 

The city had paid benefits in the following amounts:

  • Robert Yarbrough $302,547.55 
  • Estate of Robert Bebee $302,404.65 
  • Estate of Anne Sullivan $189,840.79 
  • Estate of Robert Garner $298,570.00 
  • Estate of Mathew Renaud $302,072.

The document reads:

"The City exercises its discretion in the best interest of the City and the Public, and hereby forever waives and relinquishes its right to recover from the settling defendants in the Litigation the total of the Benefits paid by the City to or on behalf of the Waiver Beneficiaries, provided, however, that the full value of the sum of said benefits shall be paid by the settling defendants in the Litigation to the Waiver Beneficiaries without reduction on account of attorney's fees, any contingency fee lien on the Waiver Beneficiaries' recovery in the Litigation held by their attorneys, or costs of litigation and that the Waiver Beneficiaries' attorneys agree in writing to waive any contingency fee lien or right to the recovery of attorney's fees or litigation costs as to the total of the Benefits recovered from the settling defendants in the Litigation in order to maximize the amount of settlement proceeds received by the Waiver Beneficiaries."

At a press conference called Thursday afternoon by the Houston Professional Firefighters Association, David Renaud, brother of deceased fire Capt. Matthew Renaud said, “Let our attorney be, and let us move on from this.” 

The liens were filed by the city in 2015 to recoup medical expenses and ambulance service costs to the city for treating the firefighters and came after their families filed lawsuits seeking damages from several private companies connected to the fire. 

Houston Fire Fighters Association believes that the city’s demand on the waiver is aimed at one attorney in particular: Ben Hall, who ran against Turner for mayor in 2015

“At this point, it appears the mayor has a personal or political vendetta against the firefighters' attorney. Which I said over a month ago, I don’t care about lawyers. I care about these families," Marty Lancton, head of the Houston Professional Firefighters, said.

“What we are asking the five families is just something legal and binding on paper that says we are releasing the families from these liens,” Renaud said.

A written statement from the mayor’s office Thursday said in part that the city retains its right to seek to recover fees paid to the attorneys. 

As to the allegation of a vendetta, mayoral spokeswoman Mary Benton called the claim “ridiculous.” Benton said former city council member Steve Costello also ran against the mayor but is now part of the administration. 

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