Posts Tagged ‘firefighters’

Black hydrants and unintended consequences

The state of Texas recently enacted legislation requiring that all non-working fire hydrants, defined as those pumping less than 250 gallons of water per minute, be painted black so that firefighters do not waste time during emergencies hooking up to futile sources (and presumably so that nearby homeowners can also assess their risk before a fire). Alas, the new law has had an unintended consequence, according to this Sept. 18 press release (PDF) from the State Firemen’s and Fire Marshals’ Association of Texas:

Unfortunately, some water utilities in Smith County have over-reacted to the legislation by painting all fire hydrants black, most of which are functioning hydrants that pump well over 250gpm. “The utilities are painting all hydrants black to protect against liability,” said, Cody Crawford, Fire Chief of Chapel Hill Fire Department. “While this makes sense to the lawyers, it doesn’t make good common sense and it puts homeowners at risk.”

Crawford goes on to give his opinion that the practice “creates more liability than it removes”; presumably the water utilities’ lawyers disagree with that assessment (h/t reader Eric Bainter).

A law written by attorneys, for attorneys

I previously posted on Washington’s Insurance Fair Conduct Act, known as Referendum 67. If passed by the voters, it would allow first party claimants to recover triple damages and attorney fees for those claims “unreasonably” delayed or denied.

Existing law already allows a wronged insured to bring three separate causes of action against his/her insurer for such claims: breach of contract, bad faith and violations under Washington’s Consumer Protection Act (CPA). Such existing remedies often yield bizarre results as we saw in the Woo v. Fireman’s Fund case.

The Supreme Court’s knuckleheaded 5-4 ruling upheld a judgment to pay Woo $250K he paid to settle an underlying suit, plus $750K in emotional distress and attorney fees. Obviously, there are already plenty of incentives for an insurer to avoid these judgments by acting fairly, and under this legislation Woo could have received three times more as punitive damages in addition to the “emotional distress” damages which have a punitive measure built into them. And in case you are wondering, Fireman’s Fund coverage position was perfectly reasonable.

The television ads for the Approve 67 camp are demagogic and misleading, if not outright lies. The worst has to be the ad featuring Tiffany Forslund whose father, firefighter David Potter, died allegedly because an insurer delayed payment for necessary health treatment. Forslund says:

My father would have given his life in the line of duty, turns out the insurance company took it instead.

What tripe. Not only would R-67 not apply to her father’s claim (it is intended to benefit auto, home and property policies–not health insurance) it’s not true according to the mayor of the city for which Potter worked, who said it would be covered as a workers’ compensation claim or through the city’s health plan. But the attorneys promoting this legislation could not resist such a sympathetic story of a firefighter allegedly killed by an insurance company, even if it’s entirely off-point and probably untrue. Demagoguery at its finest. And, if the claim is true Potter’s family already has remedies under existing law for emotional distress, which, for a lost loved one are rightfully substantial and the threat of such judgments deter wrongful insurer conduct. Why shall we now triple those damages?

Attorney fees are typically one-third of the gross recovery. So if the gross recovery is tripled it equals a bigger fee. But let’s say the insured prevails but the gross recovery is small? No problem. Just submit your fee request to the court on an hourly basis if it provides a greater recovery for the attorney. And, here’s another little tidbit: the attorney fee provision is mandatory but the triple damages are at the court’s discretion. Who’s looking out for who here, really? And, that the triple/punitive damages are for the deliberately vague “unreasonable” and not for criminal, willful or wanton conduct as you would expect (and would be deserved) to award punitive damages makes for a juicy tidbit indeed.

And, there’s no crisis in the first place. Check out this link from the Insurance Commissioner of Washington State showing the number of complaints against individual insurers. In 2006, Private Passenger Auto Insurance Complaints averaged one complaint for every $1.5M in premium and Homeowners Insurance Complaints averaged one complaint for every $2.5M in premium. Hardly a crisis, and nothing worthy of threatening triple damages in every instance.

This legislation will enrich those attorneys bringing these suits, bring a windfall to a small number of insureds at the greater expense of all who pay insurance, directly or indirectly.

“Disrespectful cockalorum…mordaciously sarcastic”

It would appear U.S. District Judge Robert Blackburn has reached the end of his patience with attorney Mark E. Brennan, and then some. Throwing out a $1.2 million verdict obtained by Brennan against the city of Denver on a claim of age discrimination against a firefighter, Judge Blackburn condemned Brennan’s courtroom antics as “disgraceful” as well as “boorish and unprofessional”:

“In over 19 years on the bench, I have seen nothing comparable,” the judge wrote. “Such disrespectful cockalorum, grandstanding, bombast, bullying and hyperbole as Mr. Brennan exhibited throughout the trial are quite beyond my experience as a jurist, and, I fervently hope, will remain an aberration during the remainder of my time on the bench.”

(Daniel J. Chacon, “Judge points to lawyer’s antics in junking $1.2 million ruling”, Rocky Mountain News, Oct. 6). No response from Mr. Brennan is recorded yet in the news coverage assembled by Google. The dictionary, incidentally, defines “cockalorum” as “boastful talk; crowing”. P.S. Brennan’s response, as reported in the Rocky Mountain News (via ABA Journal); also more details at On Point News.

Lawsuit: Knowledge of English, thinking not required for police

Quick multiple choice question: you call the police to report an emergency. Several officers respond. Who do you want supervising these officers?

  1. Smart police officers
  2. Police officers who speak English
  3. Police officers who can choose the right strategy from multiple possibilities
  4. All of the above

Tricked you! The question can’t be answered, because police supervisors shouldn’t have to answer multiple choice questions at all:

Five police officers from Lawrence and Methuen filed a federal civil rights lawsuit yesterday against the two cities and the state, contending that the state promotional exam discriminates against members of minority groups and has prevented their advancement within the ranks.


They say the multiple-choice format of the test, not the content of the questions, has blocked the rise of minorities, many of whom grew up speaking a different language. They want the state to devise a promotion system that would better reflect the skills used by a police supervisor, instead of how well they answer multiple-choice questions.

Welcome to the world of “disparate impact” litigation, where you don’t have to demonstrate any racism to charge racial discrimination. All you have to do is claim that some groups get promoted less frequently than others, and point out that the employer can’t really prove that his standards are necessary for the job. You know, like speaking English…

“I think this exam is really outdated,” said Cano, who scored a 78 in 2006. “For me, a person whose native language is Spanish, it’s a challenge. The questions are extremely complicated.”

…or dealing with “complicated” situations. The complaints don’t even have to make sense:

Kevin Sledge, 45, a patrolman in Lawrence for 14 years, said the test favors those who have more practice taking written exams. He took the exam last year for the first time, scoring a 76, but was passed over for others who scored higher.

“Some people are more practical and verbal, and those are important skills to be a police supervisor,” he said.

Whereas multiple choice questions don’t test either practical or verbal skills? Well, I guess if you see an emergency, you can just call a lawyer instead. (H/T John Rosenberg)

(Past Overlawyered fun with civil service exams: Mar. 2005, Apr. 2006, Jan 2007, Aug. 1, others.)

Jumping into crashed Toyota

Not such a swift idea if the people in the crashed vehicle are just going to tell on you:

Police arrested a 20-year-old woman Sunday for allegedly jumping into a car that collided with a police cruiser and possibly faking an injury….

Powell [Shava Shirlee-Sophia Powell, of Boynton Beach, Fla.] yelled in pain and claimed her back was hurt when firefighters and paramedics arrived, the report said. She deflected attention from rescuers trying to treat others injured in the collision, the report said. Powell was taken to Boca Raton Community Hospital where doctors found no evidence of injury. She tried to flee the hospital when she found out police were called in.

Catasha Adams, the driver of [the] Toyota that Powell jumped into, told police Powell wanted to use the accident for a lawsuit against the police department.

(Leon Fooksman, “Police accuse Boynton woman of faking crash injury”, Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, Aug. 20)(via QuizLaw).

Publicity roundup

  • Kind thanks to Oklahoma’s largest newspaper, The Oklahoman, for an editorial recommending that readers “visit… on a regular basis” a certain website that “offers frequent updates on a legal climate gone wild. …an amusing if sad reality check”. (“Batting zero: Litigation reform strikes out” (editorial), Jul. 12; see also 100 Ideas Oklahoma, Jul. 23).

  • All that fine print on contracts — what sort of legal effect does it have, and should you feel obliged to read it? I’m quoted, as are legal bloggers David Rossmiller and Ron Coleman (Katherine Reynolds Lewis, New Orleans Times-Picayune, Jul. 29, and other Newhouse papers)

  • Again with the guru business, and I can’t even fold my legs properly (Joe Palazzolo, “Giuliani Burnishes Conservative Credentials With Choice of Legal Policy Advisers”, Legal Times, Jul. 25)

  • I’m quoted criticizing a federal lawsuit filed against the City of New York for its use of written tests to screen aspiring firefighters’ reading and writing skills (Ari Paul, ” Accuse UFA Head Of Racial Politics; Rip Support of Fire Test”, The Chief/Civil Service Leader, Jul. 27 — not yet available to nonsubscribers). Relevant links here, here, here, and here.

July 23 roundup

L.A. attorney ethics beat

A jury has convicted prominent attorney Stephen Yagman, who’s prospered greatly filing police-misconduct and civil-rights lawsuits in Los Angeles, of 19 counts of attempted tax evasion, bankruptcy fraud and money laundering. Prosecutors said Yagman led a lavish lifestyle while declaring bankruptcy, hiding assets from creditors, and failing to pay payroll tax. (“Famed SoCal civil rights attorney found guilty of tax fraud”, AP/Riverside Press-Enterprise, Jun. 22; Patterico, Jun. 22 and Jun. 23 (not sharing Duke lawprof Erwin Chemerinsky’s somber view of the verdict)). Last year (Jul. 5, 2006) Yagman sued a retired police detective who in a letter expressed “glee and profound satisfaction” over the lawyer’s indictment. For Yagman’s other appearances on this site, see Feb. 23, 2000, Mar. 18, 2005, Apr. 3, 2006, and Nov. 4, 2006.

Meanwhile, the city attorney of Los Angeles, Rocky Delgadillo, who’s figured in these columns a couple of times (grandstanding on Grand Theft Auto, Jan. 28 of last year; defending the city’s $2.7 million settlement of the firefighter dog food case, Nov. 22) seems to have landed in an ethical spot of bother himself (more).

On gender, L.A. fire department can’t win for losing

Like pretty much every big-city fire department, the one in Los Angeles has come under intense legal pressure to hire more female applicants, and in doing so to water down or eliminate whatever former prerequisites for hiring (such as physical tests calling for a show of upper-body strength) show “disparate impact” against women. And having been whipped up one side of the street on those grounds, it now gets whipped down the other side for having apparently responded in the most direct and practical way to the first set of legal pressures:

In the latest bizarre court case involving the Los Angeles Fire Department, a jury has awarded $3.75 million to a male fire captain who said he was retaliated against for not making training exercises easier for women.

Fire Capt. Frank Lima alleged in his lawsuit against the city that he was told by superiors that he shouldn’t hold women to the same standards as men. The reason: The Fire Department was under pressure from City Hall to increase the number of women within its ranks.

Thursday’s judgment in the 2 1/2 -week case in Los Angeles County Superior Court was notable because it involved $2.96 million in noneconomic damages — in other words, money for pain and suffering.

In his lawsuit, Lima alleged that he suffered heart problems and stress after the department tried to punish him and subsequently denied him certain assignments.

(Steve Hymon, “L.A. fire captain awarded $3.75 million”, Los Angeles Times, Jul. 9). For more on the legal pressures on fire departments to relax performance standards that women have trouble meeting, see Jan. 18. For a related set of sued-if-you-do, sued-if-you-don’t dilemmas for fire departments, see Mar. 24, 2005 (reverse discrimination suits by whites after Chicago altered rules to encourage black applicants). Finally, we covered (Dec. 5, 2006 and earlier posts) the saga of the $2.7 million settlement that the LAFD paid to a firefighter subjected to a prank in which he was tricked into eating dog food.

Welcome Dallas Morning News readers

The newspaper reprinted my warning labels column yesterday (Walter Olson, “Product labels have come unglued from reality”, Mar. 25). Reader Gary Neyens of Round Rock, Tex. wrote in to say he enjoyed the piece and added one of his own favorite stories:

I recently replaced the serpentine (fan) belt on my Ford pickup. The Ford Motorcraft packaging warned “Shut off engine before checking or replacing belt”. I know the reason for this warning – – Somebody, somewhere…

While on the subject of publicity, Legal NewsLine did a whole article (with file photo!) based on my recent column about not counting the trial lawyers out (Rob Luke, Anti-business suits still surging, warns tort-reform expert”, Mar. 21). Last month New York Post reporter Janon Fisher quoted me in an article on the “firefighter’s rule” which historically has barred injured public rescue personnel from suing the people they were rescuing, or others whose negligence allegedly led to disaster (“Firemen file arson lawsuits”, Feb. 2). And a couple of publicity clips from last year that I didn’t round up at the time: at the North County Times’ The Californian, Bridgit Jordan quotes me on Mayor Bloomberg’s anti-tobacco philanthropy (“Donation may go up in smoke”, Aug. 22); and Joseph Goldstein of the New York Sun quotes me in an illuminating article about the “creeping oversight” of New York City government operations obtained by the feds through consent decrees and the like (“Bush Administration, in Series of Federal Lawsuits Against New York Agencies, Gains Creeping Oversight of Local Government”, Aug. 15).