BATON ROUGE, La. -- Louisiana Fire Marshal Butch Browning was slammed in a 2012 state inspector general’s report for wearing military medals he didn’t earn, allowing gun sales to employees who didn’t qualify and paying his inspectors while they attended an LSU baseball game.
In his response to the report, Browning admitted mistakes within his office, problems that he said were caught and corrected.
But one finding that Browning and the State Office of Public Safety vigorously disputed involved a carnival ride in which Browning blamed operator error for a May 2011 accident that badly wounded two young teenagers in Greensburg, La.
Records show that inspectors from the fire marshal’s office approved the ride – The Zipper – even though it was improperly modified. State Inspector Byron Wade checked the box next to “safety stops,” even though the ride’s emergency brake and protective cover on the on-and-off switches had been removed.
When an operator accidentally brushed against the switches as a 13-year-old girl and her 15-year-old brother were getting off the ride, the youngsters were catapulted about 15 feet to the pavement below.
A press release and subsequent public statements by Browning and the fire marshal’s office attributed the accident solely to “operator error.”
The inspector general’s report in Nov. 13 disagreed with the fire marshal’s account and found the inspection process contributed to the mishap, a fact that the State Office of Public Safety again vigorously disputed in its official response.
But Eyewitness Investigates has learned that, even as the state was publicly disputing the findings, it recently settled a lawsuit by the family of the injured riders for $180,000.
“The state paid $180,000 to make this case go away,” said Rafael Goyeneche, president of the watchdog group The Metropolitan Crime Commission. “Butch Browning made public statements that this was operator error only. So that is factually incorrect. It’s a lie.”
Goyeneche said the settlement contradicts Browning’s earlier public position.
“He misled the public and lied to the public about the culpability of his subordinates and his office,” Goyeneche said.
In an interview last week, Browning again defended his statements, maintaining that he didn’t find out about the mechanical modifications to the ride until his office months later after his office thoroughly investigated the accident.
“That’s all information that was found out later when it was determined that the owner didn’t notify the fire marshal’s office of the changes in the ride, after press releases went out, after the preliminary investigation was done,” Browning said.
The inspector general’s report points out that it is the job of fire marshal’s inspectors to catch mechanical problems before clearing the ride to operate.
Browning, however, said that’s asking too much of state inspectors.
Despite the settlement of the lawsuit, language in the final legal paperwork states that the state is compromising a “doubtful and disputed claim.”
But Loyola Law Professor Dane Ciolino said it is routine for defendants to deny liability, even as they are paying a significant amount of money to get out of a lawsuit.
In fact, the state wasn’t even named as a defendant in the lawsuit until the inspector general released his report, a document that included statements from fire marshal’s own investigators that the state faced some liability.
One of those investigators, Donald Carter, submitted a letter through his attorney stating that he tried to tell Browning the night of the accident about mechanical issues overlooked by the state inspector.
“Mr. Carter wishes to emphasize his disclosure to Mr. Browning, on the night of the accident, of the identified mechanical defects in the Zipper amusement ride,” attorney Mark Falcon wrote. “Additionally, be advised that Mr. Carter was told by Mr. Browning to limit the scope of his investigative report solely to the substance of the interviews conducted by him that night.”
Ciolino said the Carter letter clearly factored into the settlement.
“Those documents were fairly damning and you would expect that the lawyers for the state, after having seen those documents, wanted to cut the state’s exposure,” Ciolino said.
Browning said he wasn’t even aware of the settlement of the lawsuit.
“I’m not privy to court settlements,” Browning said. “I’ve never been called to trial. I’ve never been told the fire marshal’s office did anything wrong. I can’t affect what happens in court settlements and conversations between lawyers.”
While Browning brushed aside the settlement and dismissed his critics, he did say ride inspections are now more effective. He said that when state inspectors check carnival rides, they are now required to ask the operators if any mechanical modifications have been made.
“I can tell you that we have taken that investigation very seriously and when it was brought to our attention by the inspector general that they were looking into it, we immediately re-evaluated everything in that case and we’ve taken action,” Browning said.