Throwing Handlights At Passing Cars

Today’s burning question: We were at an emergency scene and a car came driving up really fast, totally disregarding our safety. I even shined my flashlight directly at the driver but he kept on coming. Out of frustration I threw my flashlight at him. I can’t get in trouble, can I?

Answer: It depends on whether you consider criminal charges and being liable for the damages getting in trouble.

On Monday, the fire chief of the Bennington Rural Fire Department, in Bennington, Vermont pled not guilty to misdemeanor counts of disorderly conduct and unlawful mischief arising out of an incident that occurred on June 3, 2012.

Chief Joseph T. Hayes, 43, was at the scene of arching wires and was attempting to ascertain the pole number when he claims a car driven Frederick Grant approached at a high rate of speed. The incident occurred at about 11:00 pm. The chief initially tried to shine the flashlight to get Grant to slow down, but when Grant continued the chief threw the light striking the front bumper of his car.

Grant claims he was unable to see Chief Hayes, who was not wearing PPE or anything reflective. He said his windshield wipers were on due to rain and mist causing his windshield to be streaked, and the glare from the headlights of parked vehicles made it hard for him to see. Grant claims he was in a line of cars that were all traveling 15 to 20 mph through the area.

Chief Hayes’ attorney, William T. Wright, claims he has witnesses to support the chief’s version of events. He said “It’s our belief that when their information is disclosed, it will put a very different light on what happened. A jury would have a very tough time convicting Chief Hayes. He was just doing his job as the fire chief.”

This case is interesting to me because it is not that uncommon a fact pattern. I have personally represented firefighters who have similarly thrown objects at arrogant, oblivious drivers, and have had to discipline firefighters for doing similar things. Whenever I discuss this factual scenario, invariably other firefighters recount similar experiences.

A few key points:

  • A firefighter who throws an object at a passing motorist or vehicle could be charged with assault  (battery if the vehicle is actually struck) because the vehicle is considered to be an extension of the persons in it (I know, I know but the cases go back to the 1700-1800s when someone would punch a horse because they were angry with the rider)…
  • Self-defense is only a defense if the facts indicate that the object was thrown in an effort to warn the driver, not out of frustration or retaliation…
  • I have seen firefighters convicted and required to pay damages BUT I have also seen drivers who realize they were wrong and apologize. A case in point:

My former boss, Fire Chief Alfred Bertoncini (ret.), told me a story about one of Providence’s most well known deputy assistant chiefs, Robert Weakley. When Chief Weakly was a lieutenant, and Chief Bertoncini was his driver (chauffeur in Providence parlance) they were responding to a house fire early one morning in one of my old companies, Engine 3. While enroute they approached a traditional milk delivery van (where the driver drove standing up). As they passed the milk truck the driver seemed to speed up, and then refused to pull over or stop. As the two vehicle proceeded down the street, the engine needed to take a right. Lt. Weakley tried to visually and verbally signal the milk truck driver to no avail, and in desperation threw his handlight out of the cab of Engine 3, crashing through the side door of the milk truck shattering the door and striking the driver.

Engine 3 proceeded to the fire with both men thinking their careers were over…  until later that morning when the owner of the dairy and the driver appeared sheepishly at their fire station wanting to know how much they owed for the handlight.

Now that is old school!

As for Mr. Grant, he wants Chief Hayes to pay approximately $1,000 for damages to his bumper.

More on the story.

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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