Firefighters hope to air illnesses at hearing
By Jon Steinman | Sentinel Staff Writer
Posted January 17, 2003
"They've been made out to be pariahs, liars. Vindication is the first step."
Geoffrey Bichler - attorney representing firefighters
Nearly two years ago, three Orlando firefighters accused the city of hiding evidence that they had become desperately sick on the job.
Today, the latest legal chapter in the case unfolds in City Hall as attorneys representing the firefighters union meet with Orlando lawyers to begin an arbitration process that could last two weeks.
The firefighters want to prove that the city did not act in the spirit of its contract with the union by withholding information about their illnesses and effectively delaying medical treatment.
Their aim is to have the city admit wrongdoing and, among other concessions, help pay some medical bills.
An independent hearing officer will decide the case.
The case against the city involves a handful of retired and disabled firefighters stricken with diseases such as hepatitis C, an often fatal blood-borne illness that 10 firefighters claim they unwittingly contracted by inhaling toxins and coming into contact with tainted blood.
One of the complainants is Orlando Fire Chief Charlie Walker's brother, A.C. Walker.
Among the issues is whether decade-old medical exams revealed early symptoms of their illnesses -- and whether the city kept the information under wraps for fear of losing millions of dollars in medical expenses and lost work time, they said.
"It's ironic that we spend our lives trying to save other lives, and the city treats us like this, like dirt," Bob Flamily said. He spent nearly 23 years with the Orlando Fire Department. Speaking from a motorized wheelchair, Flamily, who once enjoyed fishing and hunting, can barely speak at times. He is suffering advanced hepatitis C among other ailmentsand is in first-stage liver failure.
Alba Hall, a 12-year veteran who left the department as a lieutenant, lives his life behind a mask that filters the air. Fighting two respiratory ailments, one he suspects was caused by fumes from burning aluminum at a fire years ago, Hall focused his rage on the city and not the diseases eating away at his lungs.
"The city has done nothing but ignore us," Hall said. "They've done that all along. They say there's nothing wrong with us. We're hoping the truth will finally get out."
City officials dismiss the allegations. What's more, the arbitration process is not the proper forum for the firefighters' claims, said Jody Litchford, an assistant city attorney.
"I haven't heard of any instances of the city's failure to comply with its obligations covered by our collective bargaining agreement that's at issue here," she said, referring to a labor agreement that ran from October of 1999 through the end of last year.
Arbitration, she said, can focus only on that time frame and on matters specific to the bargaining agreement, or labor contract.
Attorney Geoffrey Bichlersaid he would use the forum to argue that the city not only ignored signs of illness but that it continues to ignore its obligations.
"First of all, give them their dignity back," Bichler said. "They've been made out to be pariahs, liars. Vindication is the first step."
The next step, he said, would be to help pay for health care. Many of the men have lost their insurance. The firefighters also want the city to implement safety procedures and hire medical professionals within the Fire Department.
Arbitration doesn't allow for punitive damages, Bichler said.
Hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees and court costs have already been spent on the case by both sides.
In August 2002, a Circuit Court judge reprimanded Bichler and another attorney for suing the city for medical malpractice without sufficient evidence.
The judge called the pair's suit "the crassest example of lawyering at its worst" and ordered them to pay the city $200,000 toward its legal bills.
"We're not going to let it drag on," Bichler said.
"But what's been heard isn't enough. The evidence in this case deserves a public airing," he said.
Jon Steinman can be reached at email@example.com or 407-650-6333.
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01-17-2003, 05:12 PM #1
Firefighters in Orlando Fla take on city ref job related illnesses
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