Sutphen, the manufacturer of a firetruck involved in a July accident that seriously injured three Hall County firefighters, has now reimbursed the county for the purchase cost of the truck and taken possession of the rig, according to documents obtained by The Times and interviews with county officials.
In addition, two investigations have found no fault on the part of Hall County officials related to the accident.
During a training exercise, firefighters TJ Elliott, Stephen Jackson and Will Griffin suffered back and spinal injuries when the bucket they were standing in atop a firetruck ladder fell 44 feet.
“... The top three sections of the fully extended ladder collapsed onto the second section when, apparently, the cables supporting the extension of the ladder failed,” wrote County Attorney Bill Blalock in a Sept. 16 letter to Sutphen.
According to an investigation by the Rimkus Consulting Group of Atlanta for the Association County Commissioners of Georgia Insurance, “When the platform was about to be or started being retracted, the witnesses reported hearing a ‘pop’ sound ... and the platform immediately retracted, uncontrolled, and at high speed, until it contacted the still-extended second section of the ladder. Most of the witnesses described seeing ‘broken cables’ falling down from or hanging beneath the ladder, and one end of one cable actually separated from the ladder and fell to the ground.”
The same investigation found that extension cables connecting sections of the ladder “failed catastrophically” and sent the firefighters into a free-fall.
“There was evidence of damage to the left extension cable that existed prior to the accident,” according to the investigation report.
Failures in the truck’s extension cables were documented by the truck’s previous owner, Bluffton Township Fire District in South Carolina, which sold it back to Sutphen in 2013 for $305,000.
Hall County then purchased the firetruck, which was delivered in April of this year, from Sutphen for $505,000, an amount that has been reimbursed after a settlement agreement with the Ohio-based manufacturer was signed in late October.
Hall County, which had threatened legal action if not reimbursed, alleged that Sutphen knowingly or negligently misled fire officials when negotiating the purchase of the truck.
The county’s own investigation reports “there is no evidence that anyone with Hall County had prior knowledge of any prior equipment failures involving Sutphen vehicles, thus decisions to move forward with the purchase of the vehicle were made in good faith.”
The report also states Hall County Fire Services had followed the manufacturer’s specifications with regard to daily maintenance of the truck.
And the Rimkus investigation backs the county’s claims, reporting there is no evidence of improper maintenance or improper inspection of the firetruck by Hall County officials.
The settlement agreement with Hall County releases Sutphen from additional liability but does not preclude the injured firefighters from seeking damages.
“This agreement does not include and is not intended to encompass any personal injury claim that may be brought by any Hall County employee relating to the incident,” the settlement states.
Sutphen does not admit to any “liability, wrongdoing or other responsibility to anyone arising from the ... fire apparatus or incident,” according to the settlement.
Meanwhile, Hall County officials have recommended the fire services maintenance division be involved “in the process of equipment selection, design and delivery” as a precaution against purchasing faulty equipment.