Lawsuit says Trinity Lutheran Church fire caused by grinder use on roof; damage estimated at $24M+

MILWAUKEE -- Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church filed suit against the contractor performing work on the roof when a four-alarm fire gutted the church on May 15, 2018.

The lawsuit was filed July 1 against Langer Roofing & Sheet Metal Inc. of Milwaukee, and Federal Insurance Company of Indianapolis.

The lawsuit said the building, constructed in 1878-1880, has "historic significance," and is included on the National Register of Historic Places. It was recognized as a municipal landmark in 1967. The lawsuit noted there had been only one major alteration (the remodeling of the basement in 1962) during the church's long history, and it looked much as it did when it was dedicated in April 1880. The lawsuit also addressed the historical significance of the church's pipe organ, listed on the Organ Historical Society's national register of historic organs.

According to the lawsuit, on the day of the fire, a Langer employee was using a grinder to remove the existing gutter on the south side of the church's roof, which created sparks -- igniting the fire -- with flames spreading across the roof, causing substantial damage to the building, the adjacent office building owned by Trinity, and the contents of both buildings. The entire roof was burned, and the organ was destroyed.

The lawsuit noted the damage caused by the fire was in excess of $11 million -- estimated to be in excess of $24 million.

In October 2018, Trinity officials presented to Federal Insurance (Langer's insurance company) a notice of claim with an itemization of damages incurred as of the date of the letter (more than $4 million). An updated notice of claim was sent in February 2019, with an itemization of damages totaling more than $7 million, and the budget from the general contractor for damage repair listed at more than $24 million. The lawsuit alleged Federal Insurance has "failed and refused to pay the claim, nor any part of it."

The lawsuit also laid out Wisconsin state statute as it relates to "hot work," permitted "only in areas that are, or have been, made fire safe," and requiring a hot work permit. The lawsuit alleged Langer failed to ensure the protection of combustibles from ignition, proceeded with grinding even though combustibles weren't moved or shielded, failed to ensure someone was designated as a "fire watch," performed grinding in an area that wasn't made fire safe, and failed to use reasonable care in the use of the grinder -- all violations of statute, and the cause of the fire and damage.


In early June, an important step was taken toward reopening the historic church. Hip trusses were lifted into place for the new roof.The four trusses replaced the wooden beams that were removed in January -- burned by the fire. The hip trusses would allow for work to begin on the interior of the church, with the goal of reopening in 2022.

Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church