The connection between the fire service and the law has always fascinated me. There never seems to be a shortage of lawsuits involving fire departments, firefighters, fire chiefs and firefighter unions. However, while fire service litigation abounds, there has been virtually no effort made to...
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The connection between the fire service and the law has always fascinated me. There never seems to be a shortage of lawsuits involving fire departments, firefighters, fire chiefs and firefighter unions. However, while fire service litigation abounds, there has been virtually no effort made to categorize and analyze the types of suits and resulting liabilities facing fire departments.
What is the biggest liability exposure facing the fire service? What are the most common things that fire departments are being sued for? Is it the same state to state, or region to region? Do volunteer fire departments face the same types of suits as combination or career departments? Have litigation trends changed over the years?
These unanswered questions led me to begin the creation of a fire service litigation database. The purpose of collecting this information is to gain a better understanding of the legal challenges facing the fire service in a measurable way. Collecting this information also explained why no one else has done it: it is an incredible amount of work!
Fire Service Litigation Database
The database is intended to gather information on legal proceedings involving fire and emergency services organizations. Included are virtually all types of legal proceedings involving fire departments, firefighters, paramedics and EMS providers that could be identified and verified through publicly available sources such as newspapers, wire services and court records. Excluded are proceedings related to fires that do not involve fire departments. For example, the database does not include fire-related suits by homeowners against insurance companies or suits by building owners against the manufacturers of equipment that cause a fire. Similarly, criminal proceedings against firefighters for off-duty behavior unrelated to fire department activities were excluded. However, where firefighters were disciplined for off-duty behavior, the disciplinary charge was included as a legal proceeding.
Once a proceeding was located, it was painstakingly researched, and pertinent information entered into the database. Cases were updated as additional information about the proceeding became available.
While lawyers tend to focus on written decisions and verdicts, and insurance companies often focus on settlements, the database tracks lawsuits filed and follows them to conclusion to the greatest extent possible. While the database can track jury verdicts, written decisions, and settlements as needed, our major focus is on the fact that a legal proceeding has been initiated.
The results should be viewed with the understanding that the statistics have limitations. The cases used in the database were not selected randomly or through scientifically validated survey techniques. Rather, cases were found through web searches and publicly available sources. In addition, the information about cases may be incomplete, particularly in regard to cases that are settled confidentially or that lose the interest of the media. Case information was not independently corroborated with the courts, except where published decisions were involved.
Enough about how we got the information. Let's get to the results.
A total of 1,051 cases were in the database at the time of analysis, broken down into three categories: administrative, criminal and civil. Administrative cases are those proceedings that are not brought in a judicial forum, including disciplinary actions, state Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) proceedings, contractual grievances, unfair labor practice complaints and other non-judicial proceedings. Criminal cases are those in which a firefighter is charged criminally for job-related conduct. All other proceedings are categorized as civil.
There were 383 administrative cases, 504 civil cases, and 164 criminal cases. The largest number of cases, 647 (61.6%), involved career fire departments, while 141 (13.4%) involved combination departments, 218 (20.7%) involved volunteer departments and 43 (4%) involved non-fire EMS organizations, state fire academies, and other non-fire emergency organizations.