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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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.

Conclusion

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 jcatlaw@aol.com or join me at www.firelawblog.com with your ideas and suggestions.

CURT VARONE has over 37 years of experience in the fire service, retiring in 2008 as a deputy assistant chief (shift-commander) with the Providence, RI, Fire Department. He is now the director of the Fire Service Division of Legal and Liability Risk Management Institute, and most recently was the director of the Public Fire Protection Division at the NFPA. Varone is a practicing attorney licensed in Rhode Island and Maine and is the author of two books, Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook.