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KCFD firetruck driver ordered to pay $32 million after killing three people in Westport crash

A man in an orange vest walks past a partially collapsed two-story, brick building. Bricks and other debris have piled on the sidewalk between the man and the building.
Carlos Moreno
/
KCUR 89.3
A firefighter walks past the partially collapsed building that once housed the Riot Room shortly after a fire engine rammed into an SUV, killing its two passengers and a pedestrian and causing the building's collapse.

KCFD engine driver Dominic Biscari sped through a red light in Westport at 50 mph, well above the speed limit, and did not brake before colliding with an SUV — killing two passengers and one pedestrian. An arbitrator found that Biscari then “made blatantly false statements” to police investigators.

A Kansas City Fire Department engine driver who killed three people after plowing through a red light in Westport last December will likely not be able to pay even a fraction of a $32 million arbitration award levied against him last week.

But the families of the three victims hope that at some point, the city of Kansas City will be required to pay the money instead.

The families originally filed civil lawsuits against the city and the fire engine driver, Dominic Biscari, but agreed to dismiss Biscari from the cases in exchange for his agreement to submit the cases to binding arbitration.

Biscari remains employed by the Kansas City Fire Department.

The arbitrator, retired Greene County Circuit Judge J. Miles Sweeney, found that Biscari “made blatantly false statements” to police investigators when he described what happened as he was responding to a fire call on Dec. 15, 2021.

Contrary to Biscari's statement, evidence including traffic cameras and eyewitness testimony revealed that Biscari did not slow down as he approached the intersection of Westport Road and Broadway Boulevard.

Sweeney found that the firetruck, Pumper 19, was traveling 50 miles an hour in a 35-mile-per-hour zone when Biscari plowed through the red light.

Sweeney also found that Biscari did not hit the brakes when an SUV pulled in front of him.

The driver of the SUV, Jennifer Lynne San Nicolas, 41, and a front seat passenger, 25-year-old Michael Elwood, were killed when the 45,000-pound fire engine slammed into the driver’s side and pushed the SUV into cars parked along Broadway.

Tami Knight, 41, a pedestrian who was walking on the sidewalk on the west side of Broadway, was also killed when the fire engine struck her and a building collapsed on top of her.

Sweeney awarded $9 million to Elwood’s parents, $11 million to Knight’s mother, $9 million to San Nicolas' mother, and $2 million to Alexander Llera, a friend of Knight's who was walking with her when Knight was struck.

He also awarded $1.4 million to Broadway-Westport Property Inc., the owner of the collapsed building that used to house the Riot Room live music venue.

Sweeney found that the fire department was on notice of Biscari's dangerous and reckless driving of KCFD vehicles. Ten weeks before the crash, a KCFD employee, Stazie Archibald, sent an email to KCFD supervisors titled “Horrendous Driving” describing how Biscari had driven a truck in the same vicinity at 70 miles an hour.

In another instance, she described how Biscari had driven an ambulance with an intubated patient so fast that the vehicle became airborne.

Sweeney's arbitration awards must be confirmed by Jackson County Circuit Judge Jennifer Phillips before they become final. Under the Missouri Arbitration Act, she must confirm them absent any party seeking to modify or vacate them — and court documents state Biscari does not oppose confirmation of the arbitration awards.

Since it’s all but certain that Biscari is incapable of personally paying the awards, it’s clear the families hope that the city will be found liable for the judgments under the doctrine of vicarious liability.

That doctrine states that an employer — in this case the city — is responsible for the negligent actions of its employees when, while they were on the job, they engaged in negligent conduct resulting in personal injuries or death.

Tim Dollar, who represents Elwood’s parents, declined to comment. Attorneys for the other families did not return calls seeking comment.

The city has acknowledged in court documents that, while it has sovereign immunity for the independent tort claims asserted against it by the families, the vicarious liability claims fall within an exception to sovereign immunity.

The families’ independent tort claims in this case consist of claims against the city for negligent entrustment, negligent hiring, negligent supervision and negligent training. Although sovereign immunity can be waived if the city purchased liability insurance, the city says that it is uninsured.

That means if the families prevail on their tort claims and are awarded damages, the city would be required to pay out of its legal expense fund.

Updated: November 3, 2022 at 3:22 PM CDT
A judge on Nov. 3 confirmed the arbitration award.
As a reporter covering breaking news and legal affairs, I want to demystify often-complex legal issues in order to expose the visible and invisible ways they affect people’s lives. I cover issues of justice and equity, and seek to ensure that significant and often under-covered developments get the attention they deserve so that KCUR listeners and readers are equipped with the knowledge they need to act as better informed citizens. Email me at dan@kcur.org.
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