Polk County commissioners approve $200,000 settlement in 2018 deadly fire

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Eight months after Loretta Pickard, 76, died in a house fire, Polk County Commissioners voted to offer her family a $200,000 settlement. 

The vote was unanimous Tuesday morning. The family says they will accept it.

“I’m very happy that it was approved so quickly,” said Pickard’s niece Amber Addison.

Pickard's Lakeland home caught fire in November 2018, and an investigation into the response by Polk Fire Rescue found room for improvement. Months of controversy and investigations into the 76-year-old's death in a house fire has led county leaders to consider cutting a check to her family.

Last year, Pickard called 911 from inside her log home in a wooded area of Bartow. For 20 minutes, the 911 dispatcher reassured Pickard help was on the way, officials said. During that time, firefighters focused on the flames outside rather than a rescue. The captain in charge of the scene, James Williams, posted a video of the fire on Snapchat.

“What really got to me was that according to the timestamp, my aunt was alive and on the phone with 9-1-1 while Williams was snapchatting,” Addison said.

In the months following the deadly fire, the captain resigned.

The Polk County fire chief also left the department after an outside investigation found firefighters failed to bring rescue equipment to forcibly get inside a house, among other failures.

After the commission’s vote Tuesday, the Assistant Fire Chief Rick Parnell said he’s glad it’s been settled.

“We feel badly for the family, it’s been a very tragic incident,” Parnell said. “Going forward, best practices will be implemented and things will be improved.”

The settlement amount of $200,000 is the maximum amount that any Florida government can be liable for. 

Addison is hoping this serves as a legacy for her Aunt Loretta.

“Her home, Lakeland, is going to be safer now. And she can save lives. This is going to save lives,” she said.