Conn. Fire Dept. Wins Suit Over Apparatus Placement

A man who was paralyzed after he collided with a Greenwich apparatus placed in the road to block an accident scene has lost his $12m suit.


Feb. 02--The town of Greenwich has been found not liable in a lawsuit filed by a man left paralyzed after a collision with a town fire police truck in 2006. William Kumah, of Amityville, N.Y., had accused the town of negligence and nuisance for the Cos Cob Fire Police's safety efforts following a jackknifed tractor-trailer and oil spill on I-95.

The ruling comes as a relief to Greenwich lawmakers, who had adamantly supported the fire police response while facing demands for as much $12 million from the plaintiff. But it's not just about avoiding damages, town emergency officials said -- they hope the ruling could help spur new protections for fire police personnel.

The victory, however, is bittersweet for the town.

"We are never pleased when anyone gets hurt, and we have great sympathy for (Mr. Kumah's) injuries," said Town Attorney John Wayne Fox, "but sometimes things are truly accidents. The town is not liable."

"The other aspect we are sensitive to is the volunteers that put their lives in danger to protect drivers, to protect police and to protect accident scenes," Fox said.

In the early morning hours of September 3, 2006, just before 2 a.m., truck driver Leo Brown lost control of his rig near the end of the Mianus River Bridge on I-95 South. It jackknifed, slammed into a jersey barrier and ruptured its saddle tank before coming to a stop in the right and center lanes of the highway. Diesel fuel gushed onto the highway.

Greenwich emergency workers were among the first to respond. The Cos Cob Fire Police, an all-volunteer force responsible for protecting accident scenes and providing firefighters with support, joined them, cordoning off the area with flares, cones and a fire truck parked diagonally across the highway, lights spinning.

"We were doing our job correctly," said Cos Cob Fire Police Chief Brian Kelly, who was onsite at the time of the crash.

Shortly thereafter, Kumah was traveling south when he struck the fire truck and crashed into the bridge railing, causing him severe injury including, later, paraplegia.

The central allegation of Kumah's lawsuit was that the fire truck hadn't been properly positioned so that its lights were visible to oncoming traffic.

First filing suit in 2008, Kumah maintained the town's actions, by way of the Cos Cob Fire Police, had been negligent, in its allegedly incorrect positioning of the truck, and a nuisance, in that the truck created a hazard on the highway.

The jury for the case was selected on Dec. 12 last year, and made its ruling in favor of the town on Jan. 24.

"On the negligence count, they found the town's acts were discretionary and that we could not be held accountable," said Fox. "On the nuisance count, given the circumstance, the actions taken by the town of Greenwich and the Cos Cob Fire Police were reasonable given the severity of the accident."

Town fire officials are happy with the result, but they aren't exactly celebrating.

"There's no fanfare," said Fire Chief Peter Siecienski. "We're certainly upset that (Mr. Kumah) was injured in the crash, but we continue to maintain that the actions of the volunteer firefighters and fire police involved were reasonable and prudent. I'm happy that was recognized in a positive verdict for the town."

But even with the jury supporting Greenwich's response in the end, Siecienski said the 7 1/2 years of uncertainty and pain, as well as the high stakes at play -- Kumah's lawyers were requesting nearly $12 million during the proceedings -- meant more steps have to be taken to protect emergency service workers.

"Everyone who monitored this case was afraid of what effect it would have on towns along interstate highways if the reasonable and prudent actions of these responders were not recognized," he said. "If the town won't be protected, why would the town try to protect these areas? We'd be targets."

Fire officials said they would support legislation protecting emergency service responders, especially fire police, from legal action stemming from operations on interstate highways. Siecienski said he wasn't afraid to propose that legislation himself, if need be.

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