Officials dispute Whiteclay burn victim’s lawsuit


LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) _ Authorities in northwest Nebraska are disputing a lawsuit that accuses them of negligently setting a grass fire that burned a man in the border town of Whiteclay.

Attorneys for the Rushville Volunteer Fire Department and the Sheridan County sheriff argue in court filings that they were not responsible for the injuries to Bryan Bluebird, an Oglala Sioux Tribe member who lives on the nearby Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.

Bluebird is suing the county, fire department, the village of Rushville and various elected officials. Phone messages left Saturday with the defendants were not immediately returned.

Whiteclay is a town with about a dozen residents and four beer stores on the border of the officially dry reservation. The stores sold the equivalent of 4.3 million, 12 ounce cans of beer last year, and the surrounding area is a known hang-out for panhandlers who sleep in abandoned buildings and along the streets. Tribal leaders and activists blame the Whiteclay businesses for chronic alcohol abuse and bootlegging on Pine Ridge.

The March 6 fire burned about 25 percent of Bluebird’s body, including his hands, face, left leg, lower back and abdomen. Bluebird alleges that authorities failed to spot him before they set a controlled grass fire in a field in Whiteclay where he was lying. He also accuses them of igniting the blaze on a dangerously windy day.

In court filings, Rushville and Sheridan County officials say they weren’t liable because they were acting within the scope of their duties as firefighters and public safety officials. They also argued that Bluebird’s injuries were caused by his own negligence.

Under federal law, ``any volunteers of the defendant Rushville Volunteer Fire Department cannot be held liable for simple or ordinary negligence,’’ Omaha attorney Jeffrey Nix said in court papers. ``Additionally, the alleged harm was not due to the volunteers’ willful or criminal misconduct, gross negligence, reckless misconduct or a conscience, flagrant indifference of the rights or safety’’ of Bluebird.

Bluebird’s attorney, Tom White of Omaha, has said his client _ an Army veteran who worked laying cinder blocks, branding cattle and fixing cars before the fire _ has undergone several surgeries and skin grafts. Some of Bluebird’s fingers have fused together, White said.

The lawsuit is seeking unspecified damages for medical costs, loss of earning capacity and pain and suffering.

In February, the tribe filed an unrelated federal lawsuit against the beer stores, their distributors and global beer makers. The lawsuit, which sought $500 million in damages, was eventually dismissed when a judge ruled that the case was a state issue. The tribe had argued the companies sold alcohol to Pine Ridge residents, knowing they would consume and resell it illegally on the reservation.

Blue Bird wasn’t involved in that lawsuit and said he doesn’t blame the beer stores for his injuries. But activists who have tried to limit alcohol sales in Whiteclay said such a case was inevitable, given the number of people who loiter around the stores and sleep in nearby fields.

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