Village Escapes Liability for Sex Abuse By Chief

On May 7, 2010, the US Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit ruled that a fire department would not be held liable for sexual abuse committed by a former fire chief. The suit was one of two brought by a former cadet at the Village of Thornton, Illinois  Fire Department alleging that Fire Chief John Klaczak physically and sexually abused him in 2001.  Chief Klaczak was fired in July, 2002, and pled guilty to sexual abuse charges in 2005.

Former Cadet Steven Wragg filed one suit in Illinois state court alleging assault, intentional infliction of severe emotional distress, and negligence by town officials for not investigating previous allegations about Chief Klaczak’s behavior, which included hosting alcohol and drug parties that cadets attended, and rumors of inappropriate behavior. The second case was brought in Federal court alleging a constitutional violation of Wragg’s substantive due process rights under color of law (42 USC §1983), claiming that town leaders failure to act constituted deliberate indifference. The US District Court of the Northern District of Illinois ruled in favor of the Village, and Wragg appealed to the 7th Circuit.

In reaching its conclusions that the Village was not liable, the 7th Circuit  found that “Wragg presents no evidence from which a reasonable jury could find that either the board of trustees or [Village President] Swan knew that maintaining Klaczak in employment would pose a “substantial risk” of a constitutional violation”.

The entire decision can be downloaded here.  Download XM1A3E66  It provides a good review of the law related to the liability of a municipality under 42 USC §1983. More information about what fire departments can do to manage the risks associated with junior or cadet programs can be found in the February, 2010 issue of Firehouse Magazine in my article: How Old is Old Enough: Legal Considerations for Junior Firefighter Programs.

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.
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