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Man sues Ceres over injury

A man who spent two months in the hospital after the chimney of a burned-out house fell on top of him filed a lawsuit last week, seeking $10 million from the city of Ceres and a developer who let firefighters practice their skills by burning down an abandoned home.

In legal papers, Sam Whiteley argues that the city, which conducted a controlled burn May 31, 2008, and Genesis Family Enterprises, which owns the property at 2842 Service Road, are liable for his injuries as well as pain and suffering and the loss of future income.

About 35 firefighters from Ceres and surrounding areas took part in the training exercise. Whiteley's lawyer contends that there were no warning signs, fences or other barricades in place when his client was buried under a pile of bricks July 12, 2008.

"They did very little, if any, cleanup," said attorney Matthew Quinlan of San Francisco, who represents Whiteley and his wife, LaVaughn.

According to legal papers filed Thursday in Stanislaus County Superior Court, Whiteley was visiting grandchildren who live nearby when he decided to get a closer look at the vacant lot, because he was concerned that youngsters would play in the debris.

The lawsuit does not say exactly what Whiteley was doing when the chimney, which stood 12 to 13 feet tall, fell on top of him. Quinlan declined to elaborate, saying attorneys involved in the case will address that question as the litigation moves forward.

Whiteley, a 59-year-old construction worker, racked up $2 million in medical bills during a lengthy recovery at Doctors Medical Center in Modesto.

He suffered a head injury as well as fractures in his legs, spine, ribs and face. He was unemployed at the time of the accident, and is not expected to work or walk with ease again. The Whiteleys, natives of Merced and Madera, have lived and worked in Ceres since 1981.

Quinlan argues that the city and property owner are liable for damages because they left the empty lot in a dangerous condition, yet failed to post any warnings to the public or fence the area to keep people out. Whiteley was injured about six weeks after firefighters burned the house down.

The city and property owner have 30 days to respond to the complaint.

Owners of Genesis Family Enterprises did not return calls seeking comment. According to Whiteley's lawsuit, the property owner was clearing the land, which is adjacent to Highway 99, to make way for a hotel.

Ceres City Attorney Michael Lyions said the city's insurer will defend the firefighters, adding that the city expected Genesis Family Enterprises to clean up after the fire.

As the city attorney noted, it will be up to a judge or jury to sort out liability issues, such as whether the city had to make sure the property owner cleaned up or fenced off the property after the fire, or if Whiteley did anything to contribute to the accident.

"I think the liability lies primarily upon the property owner, and not the city," Lyions said.

Bee staff writer Susan Herendeen can be reached at sherendeen@modbee.com or 578-2338.

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