Los Angeles Captains Awarded in Hazing Follow-Up Case

LOS ANGELES --

Two white Los Angeles city fire captains were collectively awarded more than $1.6 million Monday by a jury that found their race played a factor in their punishment when a firefighter they supervised was fed dog food as a prank.

John D. Tohill was awarded $1.05 million in damages and Capt. Christopher R. Burton received $592,000. The Los Angeles Superior Court jury deliberated for about 1 1/2 days before reaching a verdict in the captains' lawsuit, which they filed in October 2006.

The award comes about six months after Tennie Pierce, the victim of the dog food prank, received a $1.43 million settlement in his lawsuit against the city.

Attorneys Edward P. Zappia and Susan E. Groff, who represented the city, were not immediately available for comment.

Nick Velasquez, a spokesman for the City Attorney's Office, declined to say anything about the verdict because the defense was handled by an outside law firm.

Burton, 62, and Tohill, 51, both worked at the Westchester station with Pierce and were suspended without pay for 30 and 24 days, respectively. They maintained their skin color caused them to be punished more harshly than the Latino perpetrator of the prank, Jorge Arevalo, who got a six-day suspension.

"I'm totally pleased that the jury was able to sit through three weeks of trial and come to the conclusions they did," said Burton, who at the time was the higher-ranking of the two captains. "Captain Tohill and I said all along that all we wanted to do was re-establish our credibility and reputations."

Burton said the jury's decision allows him to "get back to doing the work I love to do." He said that while others who have filed lawsuits against the LAFD have gone on stress leave, he and Burton chose to stay on the job through the duration of the litigation.

"We stayed because we are men (of courage)," Burton said.

One of the captains' attorneys, Gregory W. Smith, said he was pleased with the outcome of the case. "I'm just sorry that the taxpayers had to pay millions of dollars to defend a lawsuit that the city could have settled for much less."

Burton, Tohill and Arevalo all testified during the trial that Arevalo made the decision to put the dog food in Pierce's spaghetti on Oct. 14, 2004.

They denied Pierce, who is black, was targeted because of his race.

During his final argument, Smith put the blame for the aftermath of the dog food prank on the shoulders of Pierce, who he said initially wanted to keep the incident quiet to avoid embarrassment, only to later go public and file a lawsuit.

"Tennie Pierce started this turmoil that has deeply affected a lot of people," Smith said.

Although the LAFD officially does not condone pranks, they are part of the natural way in which firefighters relieve stress, Smith said.

"They see a lot of misery, to blow off steam this way (playing practical jokes) is a normal process for them," Smith said last week.

When Fox, in charge of department discipline, realized Pierce was going to "slam the city with a lawsuit for racial discrimination," he made the decision that Burton and Tohill should be "thrown under the bus," Smith told the jury.

Fox's recommendation was affirmed by then-Chief William Bamattre, who was mayor of Dana Point when Burton, a fellow resident of the South Orange County city, was in charge of organizing a 10k run in the city.

"It boggles my mind how they disciplined these two men," Smith said.

The captains' other attorney, Christopher Brizzolara, said in his closing argument that the actions of the LAFD seriously hurt the careers of Tohill and Burton. Had management taken the correct actions, they could have "short-circuited Tennie Pierce" and his lawsuit, Brizzolara said.

However, Zappia told jurors that Tohill and another firefighter bought the dog food and brought it back to the station, and that the prank occurred in the presence of both captains. Burton then decided to keep it in-house and said it was because Pierce initially wanted it that way, according to Zappia.

"They blame Tennie Pierce, but they won't accept responsibility for what they did," Zappia said.

Rather than be terminated or face deserved demotions, Tohill and Burton have in recent years received good reviews for their work and make about $230,000 annually in total wages and compensation, Zappia said.

The LAFD hierarchy acted appropriately when deciding who should be punished and how severely, he said.

Zappia urged jurors to reject the captains' racial claims, noting that both Deputy Chief Andrew Foxand then-Chief William Bamattre, who decided their suspensions, also are white.

Burton, who is now assigned to a station in Wilmington and still lives in Dana Point, said he plans to retire next January. Tohill is now a station commander in Eagle Rock. The Agua Dulce resident said he is scheduled to retire in four years.

As part of the settlement reached with Pierce last September, he resigned from the Los Angeles Fire Department and dismissed all claims against the city. He had been on unpaid leave since Dec. 28, 2005.

In 2006, the Los Angeles City Council approved a $2.7 million settlement for Pierce, but the deal was vetoed by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa when photos surfaced of the firefighter participating in hazing activities.

Persistent allegations of racism within the department resurfaced in January 2006, when City Controller Laura Chick and the city's Personnel Department released audits documenting inappropriate behavior, despite efforts to clean up the agency a dozen years earlier.

The audits and the Pierce case prompted Bamattre to step down in early 2007.

Copyright 2008 by KNBC.com and KNBC (NBC4 Los Angeles). All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Loading