What Is Our Biggest Liability?

  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...


  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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Tort Actions

Of the 504 civil cases, 170 are negligence or tort-related suits. Negligence was by far the most common tort allegation accounting for 137 of the 170 tort cases (80.6%), followed by gross negligence, recklessness, intentional infliction of severe emotional distress, product liability suits, battery, defamation, false imprisonment and/or false arrest and abandonment.

In 131 cases (77.1%), an allegation of negligence or tortuous behavior was made against a fire department and/or a firefighter. In 44 cases, a firefighter sued a fire department for one of the above torts, with negligence being the most common (33 of 44 cases, or 75%). In 34 cases, a firefighter sued a third party in tort, representing 20% of the total of fire service-related tort suits.

Incident-Related Suits

Of the 170 tort cases, 121 (71.2%) are incident related. Fifty-seven cases arose from structure fires, representing 47% of the incident-related suits, and 11% of the total number of civil suits. Thirty cases (24.8%) arose from EMS incidents, and 22 involved apparatus accidents (18.2%). The remaining cases involved hazardous materials incidents (five cases), technical rescue incidents (five cases), dispatching (three cases), fire prevention problems (three cases), and helicopter crashes that killed personnel (three cases).

Of the 57 suits that arose out of structure fires, the fire department was named as a defendant 36 times (63.2%). Twenty-one of the 57 suits (36.8%) were filed by building owners or others dissatisfied with the firefighting operation. Firefighters, or the families of deceased firefighters, filed 35 of the 57 suits (61.4%), 24 of which made claims against the building owners and other responsible parties. Among the responsible parties sued by firefighters were the manufacturers of self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA), personal protective equipment (PPE), portable radios, apparatus and a boiler component that started a fire. Fifteen of the 35 suits (42.9%) brought by firefighters included claims against the fire department.

Criminal Charges

The criminal cases included in the database are for on-duty or job-related charges brought against firefighters. The chart on this page shows the breakdown of the 164 duty-related criminal cases, including career (39), combination (22), volunteer (89) and non-fire EMS (14) personnel.

The most common criminal charge filed against firefighters was theft, accounting for 68, or 41.5%, of the criminal cases. The theft charges included larceny, embezzlement, forgery and fraud. Thirty-eight of the 68 cases (55.9%) involved volunteer firefighters and 33 of those cases involved the theft of funds from the volunteer fire organization. Nine of the 68 theft cases involved the theft of prescription drugs from EMS vehicles. After theft, the next most common job-related criminal offense was arson. There were 46 cases of arson involving 64 individual defendants. Thirty-eight cases (82.6%) involved volunteer firefighters, with nine of those cases involving conspiracies among multiple volunteer firefighter-defendants. Each of the eight career firefighter arson cases involved a single firefighter acting alone. The remaining criminal proceedings include 11 cases of manslaughter, nine of sexual assault, six of vehicular homicide, five of assault and/or battery, four of reckless driving, four of reporting a false alarm and three of murder. Two murder cases arose from arson by firefighters and the other case involved a paramedic who killed a pedestrian when driving an ambulance while on drugs.

Administrative Cases

There were 383 administrative cases in the database, of which 325 (84.9%) were disciplinary actions against firefighters. The reason for the high percentage of disciplinary cases probably has to do with the media coverage given to firefighter misconduct cases. Some examples:

•Sexual assault allegations against on-duty firefighters who took their apparatus to a porn-star celebrity ball and participated in the festivities