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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Another surprise is the frequency and outrageousness of some of the firefighter discipline cases. The database contains an enormous number of high-profile disciplinary cases, as well as job-related criminal cases, that reflect poorly on our profession, undermine public confidence in the job we do and complicate the task of ensuring that fire service organizations are properly funded. This should not be a labor-management issue, because fundamentally when the public looks at the fire service they don't draw a distinction between blue shirts and white shirts. When the public's confidence in us is damaged or lost, we all suffer the consequences.
While I had hoped to be able to address the differences in liability from state to state or region to region, as well as evaluate litigation trends over the years, the data set is not yet large enough to draw reliable conclusions. Pennsylvania (89 cases), New York (87 cases) and California (78 cases) have the most total cases, with New York and California in a tie for most civil cases at 47. The chart on page 98 shows the 10 U.S. fire departments with the most legal proceedings, starting with FDNY with 34 (the data is cumulative, not annual or over a given period).
One of the obstacles to analyzing yearly litigation data is that it can be difficult to assign a date to a legal proceeding. While an identifiable event (such as a fire) may give rise to a suit, a suit may also be the result of a series of events that extend over a period of months to years (such as race discrimination). Even with an event that occurs on a certain date such as a fire on Aug. 1, 2010, the suit may be filed in 2010, but then again it may not be filed until 2011, 2012 or beyond depending upon the attorneys involved, and a final decision may not be rendered for three to seven years after that. Thus, assigning a year to a lawsuit, and drawing comparisons from year to year can be difficult. Despite the obstacles, I am confident that going forward we will be able to answer many additional questions about liability trends in the fire service.
Our first look at the fire service litigation database offers some insight into the liability and leadership challenges facing the fire service. Personnel-related matters clearly predominate over incident-related matters when it comes to legal proceedings.
Along with Firehouse® Magazine, I will endeavor to provide annual updates to this study to better assist the fire service in understanding the risks posed by lawsuits and litigation. I welcome your input in terms of how this data can be used, and how the analysis can be improved. Please e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org or join me at www.firelawblog.com with your ideas and suggestions.
A QUICK OVERVIEW
Fire Service Litigation Summary
•The most likely civil suit facing the fire service: Employment discrimination
•The most likely type of employment discrimination: Race discrimination
•60% of the race discrimination cases are filed by blacks
•40% of the race discrimination cases are whites alleging reverse discrimination
•Note: Sexual harassment claims exceed the number of race discrimination claims brought by blacks or reverse discrimination claims by whites, but not both combined
•Most common criminal offense: Theft
•In 82% of the fire service-related civil cases, a fire department and/or the municipality is named as a defendant.
•85% of the suits brought by firefighters are against the fire department and/or municipality
•The most likely incident to give rise to a lawsuit: Structure fire
•Over 60% of lawsuits arising out of structure fires are filed by firefighters
•What state had the most legal proceedings? Pennsylvania