Department Liability For an Unqualified Chief

Today’s burning question: Are there cases out there where a fire department was held liable for not having a qualified chief officer(s)? Our fire board does not seem to care that our chief has no qualifications what-so-ever.

Answer: Your question is a little like asking whether a fire ever started in a toaster that spread to a curtain because they were too close together…. as a means of justifying why a curtain should not be allowed to come close to a toaster…

I am sure there have been cases where a fire department has been sued (and perhaps held liable) for having an unqualified chief. In fact I am quite certain that I have some in my database… and will provide the data below. Failure to train is a very common allegation in law suits, as is negligent hiring/selection and negligent supervision. The problem is that is it difficult to find such cases involving just a chief officer – and just his/her qualifications.  To do so would require the reading every line of every complaint.

In most law suits, there are numerous other issues going on besides just questions about the chief’s qualifications. Complicating this also is the fact that attorneys will frequently allege negligent selection/training/supervision on the slightest possibility – just to cover the bases in the event that discovery reveals a problem…. It’s what attorneys do! However, finding a specific case holding a fire department liable SOLELY because the chief officer’s qualifications were lacking would be like trying to find a needle in a haystack.

The bigger question goes to one of my favorite points about leadership and liability – we don’t keep curtains away from toasters because we are scared of being sued… we do it because we don’t want to have an unnecessary fire… we do it because it is the right thing to do!

We don’t allow unqualified people to serve as chief officers because we are scared of being sued… we do it because we don’t want to unnecessarily kill or injure civilians or firefighters… we do it because it is the right thing to do! IMHO if your fire board thinks permitting unqualified people to be a chief officer is permissible – THEY ARE THE PROBLEM!!!! And folks that dumb are not likely to be persuaded by the mere possibility of a lawsuit.

For folks with an open mind – there certainly is a risk of a fire department being sued for having unqualified chief officers. That risk is indisputable… although we can debate the likelihood of a plaintiff actually being successful given the innumerable defenses that could be raised. Back to my main point: being sued is not the proper justification to evaluate whether all our people (from probies to fire chief) should be properly trained and qualified.

As for the data: I have 56 cases where negligent training of firefighters/officers was alleged, 34 of which involve wrongful death of either civilians or firefighters. In 22 of the 56 cases fire chiefs or chief officers were named as defendants, and another 16 involve company officers as well as chiefs as defendants. It is unclear if the officers in these cases were accused of their own negligent operational conduct (highly likely), or whether they were being accused of negligently training/supervising their subordinates. Only one of the cases resulted in a jury verdict, $1.6 million and another resulted in a settlement of $250,000. It is not clear what role negligent training played in either decision, but it was alleged.

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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