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October 10, 2002
You don't even have to try hard to get sued
By Ron Richards
We live in a litigious society. Having the courts solve disputes has become the an "accepted" 
measure the U.S. Not a day goes by that  a newspaper fails to headline a story on a lawsuit where some astronomical dollar amount is awarded to someone who has been wronged.
Surely you've heard within the past week where a jury awarded billions of dollars to a woman who has cancer after years of hard-core smoking, affixing responsibility on Philip Morris, the tobacco giant. The lady's suit was based on the fact that she was not warned of the hazards of smoking and now has lung cancer. Give me a break!  Who would have thought a jury would find in behalf of the plaintiff? Certainly not Phillip Morris and never in a million years would that have imagined the jury would make such an astronomical award.

The fact of the matter is that any one can file a civil lawsuit, no matter how frivolous it may appear on the surface. Once that happens, the wheels of justice begin to roll and the named defendents have to prepare for the worst. Many suits go nowhere, but its the "sleepers" that can come to bite you in the *%$%%!
 
Local Firefighters File Lawsuit
There's more turmoil for Johnson City's fire department. 79 current and former firefighters filed a federal lawsuit accusing the Johnson City of violating federal labor rules.
Lawsuits
A daily occurrance....

The fire service is no different than any private business. If I work for you and I feel I've been wronged, I sue. What's your recourse? Contact your legal office, solicitor or whoever provides you legal advice should be the first step. You cannot simply shrug off the suit because YOU think it is no big deal or feel the suit will go no where.

Recently WiththeCommand.com reported on various lawsuits. Some of them were initiated by parties external from the fire department while others started when a member of the fire department either sued the fire department or a representative of the fire department. Failure to follow rules for promotion....lawsuit. Sexual harassment by an officer....lawsuit. Racial discrimination.... lawsuit. Failure to provide proper protective equipment.... lawsuit... and the list goes on an on.

So what to you do protect you self and the interests of your department and community without being hog-tied in the process? First of all, you need to insure that your have policies and procedures in place. Call them guidelines instead of procedures, it doesn't matter. Once you have them, be sure rank and file have reviewed them and you can show that documentation. It is paramount that mid managers and senior level managers insure that they are enforced without prejudice or malice. There is only one thing worse that not having policies and procedures.... that is having them and not following them.

What's the bid deal you ask? If something goes wrong, be it on the fireground or at the station level and policies and procedures have not been followed, you or your department may find yourself in a compromising and difficult position to defend. Remember, that procedure that you or an officers wrote and distributed to your rank and file firefighters is about how you wanted things done or how you wanted a particular situation handled. By deviating from that guideline without good cause or by merely chosing to ignore it is playing with fire.

Here's a for instance. Your department has a policy that says all SCBA and other portable equipment is inspected on a daily basis at the start of the shift. The inspection is supposed to be documented on a form and reviewed by the station officer once the inspection is completed. It turns out that B shift at Station 9 is not the most energetic. They come on duty, turn on the television, grab a cup of java and hope the tour will be quiet. They don't take the time to fill out the inspection sheets. In fact, most of the time they don't do the inspection because the station officer is friends with them and he lets the inspection slide. 

All is fine on the ranch. Everyone is fat, dumb and happy. This fire department job is pretty neat. Where can I work a second job, come to work two days a week and get paid to sleep?  Too good to be true.

What's that...."Station 9, respond to 343 Virginia Avenue for the house fire....."  Probably food on the stove most of the guys figure as it's close to dinner hour. 

"Engine 9 on scene, we have heavy fire showing in a two story wood frame. We're going inside. Have Engine 8 pickup our line, " radios Captain Smiley. 

After what seemed to be only a few minutes, you get disoriented and get separated from your crew. Your scared. You start to panic. "Should have five minutes of air left, someone will find me or I will make it out on my own. How embarrassing, " you think.

Then, you take your next breath and it becomes your last. Your air is gone. NO WAY... Where is the alarm bell? It's not supposed to end this way. 

As you fade in unconsciousness and eventually black out, you fall into a heap in the hall way. Six minutes later your crew finds you, they pull you out and try to revive you. They bring you back but the damage has been done. Your brain lacked oxygen for too long. Your eyes stare, but there is no one in there.

So what's next? There will be fund raisers and support for your family. But deep down your buddies know what happened. The breathing apparatus failed. They knew there was a problem with the alarm but it was no big deal. The other shifts documented problems with the unit but your shift never even turned the unit on to test it.

Your poor wife and you poor kids. They come to see you daily and even change you when you wet the bed. How pathetic and sad. Then the cure of all wrongs comes on the scene.... a lawyer who heard about the unfortunate "mishap". He's already talked to the shift guys who chirped like baby birds saying they knew there was a problem with the unit. They also mentioned, when questioned, that they never checked the equipment because Capt. Smiley was a nice guy and let them get away without doing the inspection. 

The lawyer continues to do his homework. After all he doesn't get paid unless he gets a settlement for you. The bigger the settlement the more he makes. So who can be sued here? Let's go after everyone, commonly known as the "deep pockets approach"..... Sue as many parties as possible and make them prove the are not responsible. The fire department will be sued and will the chief. Good ol' Captain Smiley, who was the supervisor, will be named. Of course, the breathing apparatus manufacturer will get pulled in, too.

What's next? After the papers are served the fun begins. Request for documents will appear. Interrogatories and depositions will folllow.. The lawyer will want to see all the inspection reports. Inspection reports? We don't have them. At least not for this shift. Oh, and a copy of the department's equipment inspection policy that was signed by the chief that affixed responsibility as 
to who does what will be an exhibit in the trial.

We can go on an on here, but I think you can see where this is going. The company officer failed to insure policy was followed. His boss has some responsibility here, too. The chief, who cannot do everything, is ultimately responsible. The SCBA manufacturer will scramble with expert witnesses to show his product is good, but must be inspected and tested and will try to throw the focus back on the fire department.

There will be testimony. Friends will become foes. Dirty laundry will be aired. All of this in front of the media. A big blow your department. Certainly avoidable.

Remember, write the rules, enforces the rules, be sure you can prove that you're doing that. That will be a good starting point to keep you and your department out of court.