What is Our Biggest Liability?

What is the biggest liability facing the fire service? Yesterday’s post was about a subrogation lawsuit filed by an insurance carrier against a fire department over a rekindle that destroyed a home. The insurer is seeking $640,000 in damages.

Are cases like this our biggest liability?

What about long response times, not complying with NFPA requirements, HIPAA violations, not getting signed refusals, apparatus accidents and a host of other liability-creating potentials? For the past seven years I have been maintaining a database of lawsuits and legal proceedings involving the fire service. It have been an enormous undertaking requiring a daily ritual of adding cases, a process that takes anywhere from a few minutes to several hours.

In the past, the data has been presented in Firehouse Magazine. However, it has been a few years. This year I agreed to present the updated data at the IAFC’s Fire Rescue International in Charlotte. Besides revisiting and updating the data I have traditionally tracked, I went back and looked specifically at who is getting sued: the fire department, firefighters, company officers, chief officers and fire chiefs.

It was impossible to present all of the details at FRI, but we did cover the highlights.

Below are some of the key highlights, based upon 7859 cases, 2979 of which were civil suits. My explanations use the euphemism “Mrs. Smith” to represent the proverbial customer… whom ever that may be.

  • A fire department is 9.1 times more likely to be sued by a subordinate than by Mrs. Smith
  • A fire chief is 12 times more likely to be sued by a subordinate than by Mrs. Smith
  • A chief officer is 7.6 times more likely to be sued by a subordinate/colleague than by Mrs. Smith
  • A company officer is 5.4 times more likely to be sued by a subordinate/colleague than by Mrs. Smith
  • A firefighter is 1.5 times more likely to be sued by a colleague than by Mrs. Smith

Only 7 cases out of 7859 involved HIPAA, and yesterday’s subrogation case was only the 8th such case in the database. That means HIPAA, subrogation claims, and rekindles are not our biggest liabilities!

UPDATE 7/30/17

I wanted to thank those who wrote in or spoke to me in person at FRI about the data. One of the big questions folks had was about the ratios between Firefighter versus Mrs. Smith type lawsuits, and that in turn has to do with the definition of Mrs. Smith as the citizen-customer.

My original definition was quite narrow: Mrs. Smith was someone who called us for our assistance and was injured/disappointed with our response.

However, that narrow definition excluded a number of people – who arguably still should be factored in when considering liability. This includes people who are at the scene (neighbors, observers) and are injured even though they did not call for help, as well as citizens with whom we collide while responding.

As a result I went back and revisited all 496 cases where a firefighter was sued using a broader definition of “Mrs. Smith – the proverbial customer” that includes all non-employee (non-responder) suits by folks who are harmed/dissatisfied with our services. Not surprisingly the ratios changed.

Here is the updated data:

  • A fire department is 6.9 times more likely to be sued by a subordinate than by Mrs. Smith
  • A fire chief is 5.0 times more likely to be sued by a subordinate than by Mrs. Smith
  • A chief officer is 4.0 times more likely to be sued by a subordinate/colleague than by Mrs. Smith
  • A company officer is 1.8 times more likely to be sued by a subordinate/colleague than by Mrs. Smith
  • A firefighter is 2.6 times more likely to be sued by Mrs. Smith than by a colleague (with the most likely cause being EMS related (51%) or driving apparatus (32%).

This is an Updated Datasheet: 2017 7 5 RESULTS UPDATED Fire Service Litigation Database

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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