Workplace Injury a Daily Risk for North Carolina Firefighters

As we all settle in for the holidays, let’s remember our safety workers, who remain on the job.

Being among the first to respond in the midst of an emergency or disaster, the risk of North Carolina firefighter injuries is ever present. bluefirehydrant.jpg

Just recently, a volunteer firefighter out of Robeson County reportedly died on duty of what the department is describing as a “sudden illness.” The incident remains under investigation.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that approximately 100 firefighters die annually in the line of duty nationwide. For every one of those, there are dozens more who suffer a serious illness or injury resulting from their work. Collecting compensation for those incidents is unfortunately not always a straightforward process. In some cases, former employers will even ruthlessly attack the character of the person who was once a loyal worker.

The case of Jones v. Seattle, reviewed recently by the Washington State Supreme Court, is a good example.

The incident in question occurred in December 2003. According to court records, the firefighter reportedly fell 15 feet through a fire station “pole hole.” It was the middle of the night, and he had gone to use the restroom when he fell in a hole located near the bathroom door.

The injury he sustained was severe, resulting in permanent cognitive and physical impairments.

Three years after the incident, he sued the city for damages that arose from the accident. He alleged that the city had been negligent in its failure to block the door to the fire pole.

Following two trial continuations, a new group of attorneys took over representation of the city. They requested a second deposition of the firefighter, whose sister by then had assumed the position of his guardian and plaintiff in the case. The trial court denied this motion, as there was video of his first deposition.

Then yet another law firm assumed the city’s case, at which point the city began to allege that the firefighter was an alcoholic who had fallen into the hole because he was going through alcohol withdrawal.

The defense also alleged that the former firefighter’s drinking was compromising his recovery. This theory was based on a prior DUI arrest, testimony by his ex-wife of heavy drinking prior to the fall and the fact that when he was admitted to the hospital for his injuries, doctors implemented an alcohol withdrawal protocol as a precautionary measure.

However, the DUI charge had been reduced to negligent driving. The protocol implemented by the doctors was in fact a result of his agitation upon arrival, which in retrospect, the doctor testified, could have been the result of the brain injury the worker had sustained. And finally, the firefighter’s ex-wife said that while he drank heavily during their marriage, he had not to her knowledge consumed any alcohol two months prior to the fall.

Still, the city offered up a medical expert witness who had never met the plaintiff who testified that he was an alcoholic and that alcohol was the cause of the firefighter’s disorientation which directly led to the fall.

The judge excluded testimony of the firefighter’s prior alcohol consumption, as well as any testimony that would indicate he drank heavily after the accident.

What the judge did allow was testimony from a brain injury specialist who reported that the firefighter’s cognitive impairment and nerve damage was substantial.A pulmonary specialist testified the firefighter’s lung capacity had decreased as a result of the incident. He suffered panic attacks, testified a neuroradiologist, who added that the firefighter’s symptoms of confusion and lack of focus were worsening with time. Several other rehabilitative and pain doctors testified that he was unemployable in any future capacity.

Just before the trial, the city attempted to introduce several last-minute witnesses, several of whom they asserted would back their “alcohol” theory. The court refused.

The firefighter won a $12.5 million verdict against the city.

The city later appealed. Upon review, the state supreme court found that while the trial court erred in excluding the testimony by those late-disclosed witnesses, the error was harmless. As such, the city’s motion to vacate was denied, and the $12.5 million verdict was affirmed.

If you have been injured at work in North Carolina, contact the Lee Law Offices at 800-887-1965.

Additional Resources:
Jones v. Seattle, Dec. 12, 2013, In the Supreme Court of the State of Was gton

More Blog Entries
Lungs Injuries an Overlooked Cause of Work Illness in North Carolina, Dec. 3, 2013, Charlotte Workers’ Compensation Attorney Blog

Contact Information