Civil Rights Claim Denied

A federal appeals court has rejected a claim made by the survivors of a Baltimore City, MD, firefighter killed in a training exercise that her civil rights were violated. However, the decision says more about civil rights law than it does about whether the department was negligent.

In a widely publicized incident in 2007, Baltimore City Fire Department recruit Rachael Wilson died during live-burn training. The episode took place in a vacant building where, according to the court, “the fire department tore down wallboards and ceilings to create debris and stuffed walls with highly flammable excelsior. Then they lit fires at multiple locations on the first and second floors. After a period of delay, fire department officials instructed Wilson and her team to proceed to the third floor...” The recruits encountered what were characterized as “severe fire conditions.” They attempted to bail out of the building, but Wilson was unable to make it. Although the others ultimately pulled Wilson from the building, she was unconscious and later was pronounced dead at the University of Maryland Shock Trauma unit.

Survivors’ contentions heard

Wilson’s survivors filed suit claiming the fire department was negligent in planning and executing the drill. In summary, they claimed the department’s actions amounted to “willful violations of nationally recognized safety standards for live-burning training exercises.” They asserted the department violated both state tort (negligence) laws and federal civil rights laws.

The plaintiffs argued that the fire department’s actions were so egregious that they violated Wilson’s civil rights. They asserted “that the fire department’s conduct ‘shocks the conscience’ and was either intentional, reckless, grossly negligent and/or deliberately indifferent towards Ms. Wilson’ and liberty.”

But they did not claim that the fire department intended to harm Wilson, which normally would be required to prevail in a civil rights claim such as this. Instead, they argued that her claim of a due-process rights violation was allowable when the state (city) created the danger with a deliberate indifference to her safety.

A federal district court dismissed the civil rights claim, concluding that such a violation can be based only on “deliberate indifference” if the victim is in the custody of the government. Since Wilson was not in custody, a civil rights violation would have occurred only if the defendants had intended to harm her. However, it allowed the negligence claim to continue in state courts since the standard for determining simple negligence is quite different.

The plaintiffs appealed to the Federal Appeals Court for the 4th Circuit. The fire department argued in response to the appeal that its conduct violated the plaintiff’s civil rights only if its actions were “intended to injure in some way unjustifiable by any government interest.” Because the plaintiffs did not allege that the department intended to harm Wilson, they argued that the plaintiffs failed to make a valid claim.

The Appeals Court upheld the lower court’s ruling and dismissed the civil rights claim. Citing a previous Supreme Court decision, the Appeals Court noted that “arbitrary action” includes only the most egregious conduct that “shocks the conscience.” It is not drawn from any “traditional standard of liability from tort law.”

The court said that the standard for finding a government violation of due process is lower when the individual is in government custody (such as a prisoner). In those cases, the government’s deliberate indifference to the care of the person in custody can “shock the conscience” and be the basis for finding a civil rights violation.

But, this lower standard of culpability does not apply to a government employee such as Wilson. In reaching this conclusion, the Circuit Court refers to its holding in another case involving the death of a firefighter during training, Waybright vs. Frederick County, Maryland (2008). In that case, the court concluded that the department’s conduct might have been negligent, but it rejected the concept that deliberate indifference to an employee’s safety was a civil rights violation by noting that the employee could walk away. The court said its decision would depend on whether the department intended to harm recruits. The plaintiff conceded that was not the case and so the civil rights claim was rejected.

While the appeals court found no civil rights violation, it noted that the state liability claims are not affected by this decision. Indeed, it concludes, “the facts alleged in this case reveal a sad story that might well support state tort claims or other state law claims.” And so, more than five years after the tragedy, the litigation between the city and its deceased recruit continues.