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On April 1, 2001, a ladder truck, third due to a dumpster fire, traveled through a traffic-controlled intersection against a red light and slammed into an SUV, causing profound and permanent injuries to the civilian driver. The jury awarded over $15 million to the driver of the SUV as the result of the negligence of the driver of the ladder truck, the officer in charge and the fire district.
So ruled a jury after a "trial" in a Baltimore "courtroom" in July 2006.
The facts developed at the "trial" showed that the ladder truck was the third-due apparatus to a dumpster fire at the local recycling center. Initial dispatch information indicated that there were no exposures or special hazards. The fire was controlled quickly by the first-arriving engine company and department chief. Unfortunately, the ladder truck continued toward the scene in an emergency operation mode (lights and sirens), including traveling through an intersection controlled by a traffic signal. The eyewitness and other testimony revealed undisputed evidence that the ladder truck entered the intersection against a steady red traffic signal and proceeded to collide with an SUV. The accident caused debilitating injuries to the driver of the civilian vehicle, including a traumatic brain injury that prevented her from returning to her occupation as a physician.
The fire district, despite repeated efforts by its training officer to implement a downgraded response policy that had been rejected by the district, was found equally liable following a "trial" that included descriptions of training lapses, incomplete and false training records and failure to follow established department standard operating procedures (SOPs) for vehicle response. The driver and department chief were also named as defendants.
So went a mock trial held during Firehouse Expo 2006 in a classroom at the Baltimore Convention Center. The lawyers, witnesses and participants wove a realistic portrayal of a horrible accident that resulted from the combined effects of the failure to follow established SOPs, "paper" training and the failure to follow the recommendations of the department's training officer. Following the trial, a jury found that the actions of the fire district, the chief of the department and the apparatus operator constituted negligence and awarded $15 million in damages.
The jury was composed of audience volunteers, selected as the classroom filled. I played the role of lawyer for the plaintiff, played by Snyder, NY, Firefighter/EMT Paula Radel, who is a New York State-certified fire instructor. The ladder truck operator, played by author and apparatus operations expert Michael Wilbur, was shown to have gone through a red traffic light at an intersection without stopping, despite a fire district SOP requiring a full stop at all intersections and treating each lane of traffic as a separate intersection.
Under withering cross examination, the apparatus operator acknowledged that he failed to stop at the intersection, much less slowing, and that he never saw the vehicle operated by the plaintiff until just before the collision. The apparatus operator's company officer, portrayed by retired Lieutenant Charles Kortlang, a Mount Vernon, NY, municipal training officer, admitted in his testimony that he had not conducted the required twice-annual driver training refresher with the apparatus driver, "because he was a professional and he has a CDL (commercial driver's license)."
Despite valiant efforts by defense attorney Melissa Fingar, an attorney who represents emergency service agencies at the Rochester, NY, law firm of Harris Beach, PLLC, to show that the driver of the other vehicle was impaired, the jury determined that the actions of the apparatus operator and fire district justified the $15 million award.