Delaware Firefighter Sues His Fire Company

A longtime Mill Creek firefighter has filed a federal lawsuit alleging the volunteer company retaliated against him after he took action to stop underage drinking at a firehouse event.

Jon Stewart, 47, claims Mill Creek brought a company breach of trust charge against him about two weeks after he had state police contacted during a 75th anniversary celebration, where he observed three underage girls receive alcohol from a member of the fire company. The girls admitted they were underage when asked during the May 2002 party, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit was filed this week at U.S. District Court in Wilmington. It seeks unspecified damages and alleges the incident violated Stewart's free-speech rights. He also claims he was defamed when a public notice of the charge was posted at the firehouse.

Company President Les McCourt said the company policy on alcohol is to follow the law, and underage drinking is not allowed.

Stewart was chairman of the fire company board of directors at the time of the incident. He claims two of his fellow firefighters told him at the party that the matter should have been handled internally "to protect the brotherhood," according to the lawsuit. He later suspended the firefighter who provided the alcohol to the girls, a decision that was quickly reversed by a majority of the fire company's board of directors, according to the lawsuit.

About two weeks after the party, firefighters found Stewart guilty of breach of trust in a 40-16 vote, said former Delaware attorney general Richard R. Wier Jr., who represents Stewart. Paperwork supporting the charge said the basis for it was "Mr. Stewart observed another member of the company violating a law and took it upon himself to contact Delaware State Police," according to the lawsuit.

"It's ridiculous. This guy followed the law and got branded and banished," Wier said Friday.

Stewart resigned his board chairmanship after the guilty vote and a month later, in June 2002, the fire company board decided his punishment. He was prevented from running for the chairman's job for a year.

McCourt, the company president, said Friday that Mill Creek just received the lawsuit, and officials have not yet discussed it formally at a meeting. He was with Stewart during the anniversary party when the girls were approached and asked for identification, according to the lawsuit.

"I think there was a lot of confusion with the issue," he said, noting several members did not understand the potential repercussions of providing alcohol to minors.

Stewart is still a member of the company board, although he is not chairman.

"Hopefully, there can be a fair agreement or solution," McCourt said of the lawsuit.

Wier said the three under-age girls, who were not named in the lawsuit, pleaded guilty to alcohol possession and were given probation before judgment in the Court of Common Pleas. That means their records will not reflect convictions provided they successfully complete probation. The firefighter identified in the lawsuit as having supplied them with alcohol was not charged, according to court records.

Stewart declined, through his attorney, to be interviewed. Board chairman John Lloyd could not be reached for comment.