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...


To access the remainder of this piece of premium content, you must be registered with Firehouse. Already have an account? Login

Register in seconds by connecting with your preferred Social Network.

OR

Complete the registration form.

Required
Required
Required
Required
Required
Required
Required
Required
Required
Required
  • Sexual assault allegations against on-duty firefighters who took their apparatus to a porn-star celebrity ball and participated in the festivities
  • On-duty drinking in a firehouse with full knowledge of station officers that led to a felony assault by one firefighter who struck and critically injured another firefighter with a metal chair
  • A company officer took an in-service fire apparatus to a youth sports event and remained at the event when the apparatus was dispatched to an alarm
  • A chief officer and other personnel charged with theft of a radar detector from a wrecked automobile at an accident they responded to
  • Four firefighters (three men and a woman) accused of having consensual sex on-duty over an extended period

Many other types of administrative actions (collective bargaining arbitrations, grievances, state OSHA citations) do not garner the same media attention and thus are less likely to be located for inclusion in the database.

In analyzing the 325 disciplinary cases, 203 (62.5%) involved on-duty conduct, while 122 (37.5%) involved off-duty conduct. In 245 of the cases (75.4%), the firefighter was initially suspended or placed on a leave of absence. In 133 of the cases (40.9%), the firefighter was terminated or resigned. Sixty-two of the cases (19.1%) involved alcohol or drug usage, 52 of the cases (16%) involved sexual misconduct, and as hard as it is to accept, 31 of those 52 cases involved sexual misconduct with a minor.

The 58 non-disciplinary administrative actions include 28 unfair labor practice charges, 12 employment discrimination claims, 10 ethics commission proceedings, six state health department EMS investigations and two state OSHA citations.

Discussion

The 1,051 cases included in this analysis barely scratch the surface of legal proceedings involving the fire service. Nevertheless, certain trends are clearly evident. Employment-related suits play a huge role in fire department litigation. Employment-related civil litigation (265 cases) combined with disciplinary actions (325 cases) account for 590 cases, or 56.1% of all fire service legal proceedings. If we add the 164 job-related criminal cases, there are 754 cases (71.7%) that are essentially personnel-related legal proceedings. No doubt this is not news to the fire chiefs who spend most of their time addressing "people" issues.

Among the 121 incident-related suits, structure fires are by far the most likely type of incident to give rise to a lawsuit. This fact is even more significant given that most fire departments respond to five to 10 times more EMS-related runs than fire runs, and structure fires represent a small fraction of overall fire runs. When we drill down deeper into the structure fire incident data, we see that more than 60% of the structure fire lawsuits are being filed by firefighters, not by unhappy fire victims. By comparison, only five of the 30 EMS incident-related suits (16.7%) involve a suit filed by a responder.

The most surprising statistic to me in the entire study is the low number of apparatus-accident suits. The 22 such cases represent roughly 18% of incident-related cases, 4% of civil cases and 2% of total fire department legal proceedings, which did not square with my personal experience both as a firefighter and an attorney. To better understand that figure, I spoke with Brad Preston, a certified risk manager with VFIS of Southern New England, who serves more than 500 fire service and EMS provider clients in New England. According to Preston, "Excepting injuries on duty, vehicle accidents make up the most frequent and largest dollar loss for fire-EMS operations. Insurers would see this, but I am not surprised that courts do not. That's because although these claims are frequent, the individual losses are usually not severe. They're often small property damage losses with no injuries, such as a few thousand dollars for a pumper striking another vehicle as it parks at a fire scene. These claims are usually settled by insurers and never rise to the level of legal action. Even larger claims involving injuries may be settled fairly easily amongst insurers. The courts would only see the relatively few claims which evolve to an actual lawsuit where there's a dispute as to liability or the amount of damages sought."

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.