Suit: Detroit firefighters who took 'selfie' at burning house 'grossly negligent'

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

The owner of a southwest Detroit house where firefighters posed for a photo as the structure burned on New Year's Eve is suing the department and city, claiming they were "grossly negligent" and failed to properly perform their duties.

According to the lawsuit filed Tuesday in Wayne County Circuit Court, the South Green Street home had been in Deonte Higginbotham’s family for more than 50 years and was undergoing "large-scale" renovations totaling least $100,000.

“At no time relevant to this matter was the Green family residence ever abandoned or vacant, (a) fact known and ignored by the Defendant firefighters,” the filing stated.

The photo was posted just before midnight on New Year's Eve.

A unit arrived to battle a blaze that erupted in the residence about 6:35 p.m. Dec. 31, but as the structure burned, personnel members gathered for a photo to commemorate a senior chief’s retirement, according to the court document.

“The outrageous image of 17 white firefighters posing and smiling while a black (family’s) fully engulfed and occupied home burned to the ground made international news,” attorney Steve Haney wrote.

“It’s a really horrible look for the city of Detroit,” Haney said in a statement announcing the lawsuit. “It is very hard to ignore the racial reality this would not have happened in a different neighborhood.”

Reached Wednesday night, a Detroit representative, citing corporation counsels, said in an email “the city will not be commenting on this pending litigation.”

Dave Fornell, the city's deputy fire commissioner, also said his department would not comment.

The lawsuit alleges intentional infliction of emotional distress and seeks at least $25,000 in damages.

In the statement Haney issued Tuesday, Higginbotham said city officials had not contacted him about the incident.

“I thought they would reach out,” he said. “They didn’t. No one.”

Following an investigation of the incident, fire commissioner Eric Jones told The Detroit News the picture was shot as firefighters transitioned “from offensive operations to defensive operations.”

The photo was posted on the Detroit Fire Incidents Facebook page just before midnight, with the caption: "Crews take a moment to get a selfie on New Years!"

Jones called the picture a "momentary lapse in judgment," which "brought great embarrassment to our department and our great city." He told The News the firefighters would be punished but did not share details.

Thomas Gerhart, president of the Detroit Fire Fighters Association, said those involved “are aware and understand the public perception and accept responsibility for the way it may have appeared.”