Town blames county for road damage

Traffic detoured during tavern fire

Leader File Photo Several area fire departments sent crews to help battle the March 28 blaze at the Knotty Pines Bar & Grill, located near U.S. 45 and County Road N.

Shawano County officials are refusing a request from the town of Birnamwood to help repair a road that town officials say was damaged when county sheriff’s deputies detoured traffic away from a building fire.

Town officials say the Shawano County Sheriff’s Department was wrong to detour traffic onto Western Avenue while firefighters battled a blaze March 28 at the Knotty Pines Bar & Grill.

With estimates ranging from $76,000 to more than $100,000 to repair the road’s damaged surface, the town’s attorney has asked the county to contribute to the cost, or perhaps pay the whole thing.

County officials have turned down the town’s request, asserting that the county enjoys immunity from any such claim that sheriff’s deputies mishandled an emergency situation.

“The bottom line is that Shawano County does not intend to offer any financial assistance,” county Corporation Counsel Tony Kordus wrote in a letter to the town.

The situation developed on the afternoon of March 28 after fire broke out inside the Knotty Pines Bar & Grill, located near the corner of U.S. 45 and County Road N. The Birnamwood Fire Department and Wittenberg Fire Department fought to save the structure, joined by crews from many other surrounding departments.

Firefighters were on the scene for several hours, and traffic from U.S. 45 was diverted onto nearby Western Avenue, a town road that local officials say was not built for highway traffic.

In a June 20 letter to the county, town attorney Lee Turonie wrote that firefighters did not think detouring traffic was necessary, but that county highway employees erected barricades and forced traffic onto Western Avenue without coordinating with the town.

“While the sheriff’s department has the ability to detour traffic, it made some very poor decisions,” Turonie wrote.

The town provided estimates from road contractors showing that repairing the damaged road would cost $76,000 to restore its previous condition or $128,000 to fortify it against future possible detours. The attorney wrote that a county contribution of $50,000 “would be of great assistance.”

In response, Kordus wrote that the county denies any liability for damage to Western Avenue. He cited legal precedents in which courts gave municipalities immunity for the manner in which police officers directed traffic during weather emergencies and in construction zones.

“These are the types of cases that will control the outcome of any litigation in this case,” Kordus wrote, “and they are abundant and directly on point.”

He concluded: “If the town desires to file an action against Shawano County, that is its prerogative.”

If town officials want to pursue the matter further, the procedure typically involves filing a claim for damages with the county. If the county denies the claim, the town then would have to decide whether to take the county to court in a civil lawsuit.

Town Chairman Peter Stewart declined to discuss the situation, saying that town officials were waiting to hear more from the county.

The county board’s administrative and insurance committee is scheduled to discuss the issue Wednesday behind closed doors.

In his June 20 letter, the town’s attorney suggested that the county could be held responsible for the entire cost of repairing the road. Because signs were displayed showing weight limits for traffic on Western Avenue, the county could be found negligent for detouring traffic there anyway, Turonie wrote.

Even after the detours began, he added, there is evidence that county employees continued diverting traffic despite reports of damage occurring to the road’s surface.

Citing another legal precedent, Turonie wrote: “There is no immunity, and there is no cap on damages where the county has failed to abate a nuisance.”