In Yermo, Community Services District Leader Perceives Justice In Judge’s Unfavorable Ruling

A somewhat uncommon circumstance has manifested in the Yermo Community Services District.
Typically, officials involved with a particular public agency close ranks when allegations or claims against that agency are made. Even if members of a given governmental agency board are political rivals, they share an interest in the financial integrity of the institution they jointly represent. If a lawsuit against the agency succeeds, depending on the determination of actual and punitive damages, the agency can see its operating capital diminished significantly, resulting in the widespread perception that the agency is not acting effectively, is squandering public money, and is poorly managed generally.
For that reason, recent public statements by Yermo Community Service District Board President Michael Cint are eye-opening. Cint applauded a judge’s finding that a
prima facie case in a wrongful death lawsuit against the Yermo Community Service District, its former board president and former fire chief appears to exist. That ruling portends that the case will now be heading for trial, bringing with it the possibility the district and its taxpayers will be shelling out a substantial amount of money.
On December 20, San Bernardino Superior Court Judge Donna Gunnell Garza rejected motions for summary judgments filed by former Yermo community Service District President Robert Smith, former Fire Chief Sean Cloughen and the Yermo Community Service District in a wrongful death suit brought against the district by the family of Larry Thomas.
Garza’s ruling set the path clear for trial on the lawsuit to begin on February 27. Santa Monica-based attorney David Feldman filed the suit on behalf of Thomas’ family on July 7, 2014 in which it is alleged the district and its fire department bore responsibility for the factors that led to Thomas’ death on November 8, 2013.
The fire department was thoroughly familiar with Thomas and his condition, which included congestive heart failure, according to the suit. When his family called 911 early that fateful morning because Thomas was having trouble breathing, according to the lawsuit, there was a critical delay in response that ultimately led to Thomas’ death.
According to the lawsuit filed by Diane Merchant and Anna Thomas on July 7, Merchant called 911 at about 4:13 a.m. on November 8, 2013. She said her husband Larry Thomas was having difficulty breathing. At 4:15 a.m., the dispatch for the state fire department, known by its acronym Cal Fire, radioed notification of a 911 emergency call to the Yermo Fire Department, the nearby Fire Station 402 from the Yermo Annex of the Marine Corps Logistics Base and Desert Ambulance in Barstow.
The complaint says Cloughen, a captain in the fire department at the time who was also employed as a police officer at the Marine Corp Logistic Base in Yermo, was on duty at that time with two other firefighter trainees. The complaint says that Fire Station 402 is equipped with an advanced life support paramedic unit ambulance, but the Yermo Fire Department does not have the same lifesaving assets.
“Nonetheless, upon receiving the call, Capt. Cloughen ordered the Cal Fire dispatch to cancel out Fire Station 402,” the lawsuit reads. “Diane and Larry’s home is about half a mile from the Yermo Fire Station. In July and August of that year Capt. Cloughen was clearly familiar with Larry Thomas’ house. Nonetheless, at 4:21 a.m. Capt. Cloughen called the ‘911’ dispatch and told her that he could not find the home in question. The dispatch operator, Angie, then called Diane back and told her that Yermo Fire Department was having difficulty finding her house.
“Diane then, while on the phone with Angie, told her that she sees the Yermo Fire Department pickup truck and was waving to them while standing in the driveway,” the suit continues. “At that point Capt. Cloughen drove away from the house, prompting Diane to tell Angie ‘they are now driving away.’ Capt. Cloughen eventually turned around and arrived at the house at 4:24 a.m.”
The complaint also alleges that Cloughen is not trained nor certified as a firefighter.
“Capt. Cloughen left the bag-valve-mask in the oxygen bag without using it on Larry,” the complaint reads. “Then, Larry stopped breathing and lost consciousness.”
Another firefighter who is a certified emergency medical technician, Gary Yearsley, arrived shortly thereafter. Yearsley, according to the lawsuit, told Captain Cloughen to initiate chest compressions and told one of the trainees to radio Cal Fire to recall Fire Station 402. Yearsley then used the bag-valve-mask with oxygen and the automatic-external-defibrillator. After the first round of 30 compressions, according to the suit, Thomas’ heart started to beat and his eyes opened. But Thomas continued to falter and after several automated external defibrillator shocks, his heart stopped.
An ambulance arrived and CPR continued, the complaint reads. After personnel from Fire Station 402 arrived, Thomas was taken to Barstow Community Hospital where he was pronounced dead.
The lawsuit claims that Smith, the fire chief at Yermo Fire Department at the time of Thomas’ death, and Ray, the fire commissioner, had direct responsibility for training of fire department staff on how to manage and respond to emergencies. It accuses them of instituting “a policy whereby the Yermo firefighters were told to cancel the advance life support paramedic treatment units on each and every call.”
The lawsuit further alleges that there was some hanky-panky on Cloughen’s part that may have contributed to Thomas’ death. According to the suit, in September 2013, Jeffrey Stumbaugh, Thomas’ son-in-law, who was the Yermo Fire Department’s fire captain, complained to Smith that Cloughen, a firefighter at that time, was engaged in inappropriate behavior with a high school student working as an intern at the fire station.
According to the lawsuit, “One evening following a Yermo community meeting, Bob Smith called Jeffrey into his office to talk to him about the recent allegations against Sean Cloughen. When Jeffrey entered, the high school (girl’s) father was sitting on a chair. Bob Smith said to Jeffrey, ‘so you have a claim that Sean Cloughen was acting inappropriately with the man’s daughter, right?’”
The lawsuit continues, “Jeffrey said yes. Bob Smith turned to the father, who then said ‘I fully trust Sean.’ Then Bob Smith told Jeffrey that the whole thing is put to rest. There was no issue. Finally, Bob Smith said, ‘oh, Jeffrey you can turn in your equipment tomorrow. You will no longer be needed.’ And just like that he was terminated.”
The lawsuit goes on to allege that on the morning Larry Thomas died, Capt. Cloughen arrived at Thomas’ house at 4:17 a.m. and noticed Stumbaugh’s car parked outside. Instead of entering the house as quickly as possible in order to assist Thomas, the lawsuit alleges “Capt. Cloughen first canceled the Fire Station 402 unit, took his time and then lied about not being able to find the house while being parked directly in front of it.”
According to the lawsuit, the Yermo Community Service District, Yermo Fire Department, former Yermo Fire Chief Sean Cloughen, former CSD Board President Bob Smith and others are responsible for Thomas’ death. All of the defendants have denied the allegations.
Shortly after Garza’s ruling, Cint made public statements to the effect that the matter going to trial would bring a quantum of justice to the Thomas family, going so far as to say he was optimistic the jury would find in favor of the plaintiffs.
Without dwelling on the financial hit the district will take if the case goes in the Thomas family’s favor, he indicated his belief just such a verdict will push the district – which he now heads – toward a more responsible stewardship of the public trust. He said the lawsuit pertained to a classic case of right vs. wrong.

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