June 21--A federal judge said he wants to know more about the culture that led a North Bangor Fire Company assistant chief to allegedly be drunk at the wheel of a firetruck when it overturned returning from a parade in July 2010.
In a decision Thursday, U.S. District Judge Lawrence Stengel refused to dismiss a lawsuit by firefighter Stuart Mintz over injuries he suffered in the crash.
Ruling on motions by the fire company, Upper Mount Bethel Township and township supervisors Chairman Edward Nelson, Stengel dismissed many of Mintz's claims.
But, the judge said, to decide whether the township might be liable for the conduct that led to Mintz's injuries, he needs to know more about the volunteer fire company's custom of firefighters drinking on duty that Mintz claims existed.
North Bangor Fire Company Assistant Chief Zachary Romano allegedly had been drinking when the tanker he was driving after the Tatamy Fireman's Parade crashed three miles from the firehouse. Police found open beer cans rolling around the cab, according to a report.
Mintz and his wife, Paula, allege it had become a custom for firefighters to drink while operating fire company equipment and that township and fire company officials did nothing for years to stop it.
Stengel threw out Mintz's claim that Romano's conduct violated his Fourth Amendment rights by causing injuries that restrict his freedom. The judge said that for such a claim to succeed, a government employee must intentionally cause an injury.
He also dismissed Mintz's claim that his 14th Amendment right to due process of law was violated by a township policy that allowed firefighters to drink on duty. Stengel said there was no evidence such a policy exists.
However, Stengel said proof of a custom "so well-settled and permanent as to virtually constitute law" can also support a claim of due process violations.
"Suffice it to say at this early stage that plaintiffs have alleged rampant practice of on-duty alcohol abuse, including drunk driving, by company firefighters, to which [the] township and Mr. Nelson turned a blind eye," Stengel said.
While Stengel said he shares the township's questions about the alleged existence of a drinking culture in the fire company, he said the parties should have an opportunity to uncover more information.
Attorneys for the fire company, its officials and the township and its officials did not return calls. Fredric Gallin, who represents Romano, said facts will come out as the case develops that will show Mintz shares responsibility for his injuries.
Romano, 20, was charged with drunken driving after the crash in Plainfield Township. Police alleged he had a blood-alcohol content of 0.16 percent, eight times the limit for drivers under the legal drinking age of 21.
State court files contain no record of how Romano's charges were resolved. Because none of the charges rose above a misdemeanor and he was a first-time offender, Romano, now 23, may have qualified for the accelerated rehabilitative disposition program, which would allow his record to be expunged.
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