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Chimney stack victim files suit
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Lawyers for a man injured last year when a brick chimney fell on him have filed a $10 million civil lawsuit against the city of Ceres.

Sam Whitely, 59, was nearly crushed to death when a chimney toppled onto him on July 12, 2008. The chimney was left standing at 2942 Service Road after Ceres firefighters conducted a practice burn on a house that was to be razed for a proposed Hampton Inn. Whitely went onto the property but just for what reasons remains in dispute.

Whitely spent two months in the hospital but has permanent injuries, said Matthew Quinlan, an attorney for the San Francisco's Cartwright law firm. His injuries included multiple leg fractures, head fracture, spinal fractures, broken ribs, facial fractures, a punctured lungs, and lacerated liver.

Relatives of the injured man told the Courier last year that Mr. Whitely went to the site to remove the chimney fearing that his six-year-old grandson living next door would wander into the site and be exposed to hazard. The city claimed that Whitely was on the property to take bricks. Officer Dennis Perry obtained a statement from the victim that he was removing the chimney bricks for a garden. That statement conflicts with one made by Richard Bradford on scene who told Sgt. Deidre Borges that the victim went over to the chimney to knock it down.

Police said that as Whitely was chipping away at bricks at chest level, the entire stack collapsed and toppled on him. Whitely's son, Brandon Whitely, heard the bricks fall and rushed to his father's aid. A severely mangled Whitely was temporarily buried in the rubble.

Quinlan said that the city should have protected the public from the dangerous 12-foot-tall chimney. He asserts that Whitely was not stealing bricks.

"We assert vehomently that he was not out there stealing bricks," said Quinlan. "We have a witness. Somebody else was stealing bricks."

When asked if Whitely was trying to disassemble the chimney himself Quinlan refused to comment.

"It was better to warn him of the hazardous condition of the property. They could have put up signs. It was not blocked off nor was there a fence around it. He was visiting a next door neighbor and his grandkids would often play in the neighborhood and feared they would play in the vacant lot. He thought somebody was going to get hurt ... and little did he know it would be him."

At the time of the incident, Public Safety Director Art deWerk limited his response because of litigation concerns but did go on record as saying: ""The city didn't expect people to go and take the chimney apart. We had no reason to believe that the chimney was a hazard. We certainly didn't expect anyone to remove bricks from it."

The suit was filed in Stanislaus County Superior Court.