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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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.

Civil Cases

There were 504 civil cases in the database, which break down as follows: 370 cases (72%) involved career departments, 55 (11%) involved combination departments, 64 (13%) involved volunteer departments and 18 (4%) involve other organizations, such as EMS agencies.

The breakdown of civil lawsuits between federal and state courts shows that 213 cases (43.3%) were filed in federal court while 282 (55.9%) were filed in state court. In the vast majority of suits, the fire department or municipality was the defendant. In 415 of 504 cases (82.3%), the fire department was the defendant, while in just 27 cases (5.4%) the fire department brought the suit.

In 290 of the cases (57.5%), the suit was brought by a firefighter, or the family of a deceased firefighter. In 247 cases (49% of all civil cases and 85.2% of the suits filed by firefighters), the fire department was a defendant. Firefighter unions brought 45 suits, or 8.9% of the total, and in turn were sued 19 times (3.8%).

In breaking down the civil suits by subject, 265 cases (52.6%) involved an employment-related issue, 208 alleged a violation of constitutional rights under §1983 (41.3%), 170 (33.7%) were tort cases (negligence, battery, defamation, etc), 73 involved wrongful death (14.5%), 44 cases involved firefighter fatalities (8.7%), 35 involved collective bargaining (6.9%), 34 alleged violation of First Amendment rights (6.7%), 24 were breach of contract (4.7%), 19 (2.4%) challenged a governmental action by alleging it was ultra vires (i.e., that government did not have the authority to do what it did), 12 involved ethics violations (2.3%), and eight (1.6%) were wage and hour cases.

A challenge to interpreting this data is that many cases include multiple allegations involving different types of law. For example, a case may allege racial discrimination, age discrimination, due process violations and state law tort violations such as defamation or intentional infliction of severe emotional distress. For that reason, the sum total of the various civil suit categories exceeds the total number of 504 cases.

Employment Cases

More than 50% of the civil cases in the database are employment related. Of the 265 employment-related cases, 77 (29.1%) involve an allegation of race discrimination, including 31 (40.3%) of which that are reverse race discrimination cases. Thus, roughly two of every five race discrimination cases are brought by white firefighters. Forty-eight civil suits allege sexual harassment and another 22 allege sexual discrimination for a total of 68 gender-related claims, or 25.7% of the total employment-related claims. Four of the 68 gender cases are reverse discrimination cases filed by men.

Disability discrimination was alleged in 10 cases, representing 3.8% of the employment relations suits. While the numbers are too small to draw definitive conclusions, there are three suits involving firefighters or candidates with seizure disorders, two involving vision, and four involving alcohol and/or drug addictions.

Incidentally, none of the alcohol and drug cases were successful in asserting disability discrimination. Coincidentally, there are 10 age discrimination cases and 10 cases alleging discrimination based on union affiliation. Four cases allege religious discrimination.

Among the 265 employment-related cases, 78 (29.4%) allege wrongful termination, 40 (15.1%) allege that the employee had been retaliated against for making a previous complaint, 34 (12.8%) allege a violation of the person's First Amendment rights and 33 (12.5%) include whistle-blower allegations. A whistle-blower is a person who is unlawfully discriminated against or harassed after having reported a violation of law or otherwise made a complaint about an improper practice.