Sunday, April 5, 2009

Your Back Up May Be Your Attorney

Firefighter Injured In 2006 Blaze Sues Department, Other Firefighters”.

You want a headline that grabs your attention, but lets go at some point after reading the story.

Since reading this story, I can’t let it go; it won’t let me go.

Suing your fellow firefighter has existed in the state of Illinois for several years. An attorney who specializes in fire district law told us that we could be sued if we hurt another firefighter.

Prior to the law, we enjoyed a certain “tort immunity”, but also, a lawsuit crazy culture didn’t exist back then. Firefighters suing firefighters; firefighters suing fire departments JUST DIDN”T HAPPEN! I struggle with the logic and motivation behind such a lawsuit.

My first thought after reading the article was: “wow; this person should be a chief”. I thought this because the claims in the case are so articulate. That is; she is so detailed on the causes for her injuries. Maybe she is receiving some good coaching. As an example, Schuenke stated: “…that Corbin was mismanaging the fire scene, had lost control of the fire scene, and was exposing firefighters…to a heightened and unreasonable risk of danger. The two (University City Assistant Chief and the Battalion Chief) should have removed Corbin as incident commander”, the suit says.

So, I am sitting here wondering how Schuenke knew incident command was “mismanaged” when she was engaged in the activities resulting from those “mismanaged” decisions.

Or, are she and her team of attorneys “assuming” that, because she was injured, it HAD to be the result of a bad decision by someone else?

Or, (I feel like Sherlock Holmes) is there a “forensic expert” or clairvoyant who could accurately “re-construct” down to the most miniscule detail of the events of that day?

It is unfortunate that something went terribly wrong and she was injured. Her crew was ordered to enter the house. It would be her team’s decision making from that point forward. They have interior command in my book. If it is not safe, THEY would decide to exit.

Also, you would sound the floor and move cautiously and deliberately and look for signs of trouble. Schuenke claims that her gloves didn’t fit properly, which is why her glove pulled off when Yahnke tried to pull her up through the hole in the floor. She removed her other glove to free her trapped foot. Both hands and a foot were severely burnt as a result.

I don’t know if it’s accurate or reasonable for her attorney to claim that: “This young lady is never going to be made whole. All the money in the world isn’t going to restore her to what she was before. She lost a career, and her life will be forever changed”.

While Schuenke was still in the hospital, she did an interview where she stated that no one helped her and left her for dead. Some close to the case believed that she was hinting at a possible lawsuit then.

But, I believe that the decision to sue came after Community Fire Protection District ended her employment.

In my mind, the lawsuit is filled with emotion, bitterness, retaliation and is void of any personal accountability on her part.

Why do I say that?

Because in her lawsuit, she names three (3) fire departments and five (5) firefighters specifically for not keeping her from being injured

She is also suing the maker of her PASS device, because it didn’t alert rescuers to her predicament and location, even though firefighters DID know her predicament and location as soon as she fell through the floor.

There is no doubt that this is a sad case. I wasn’t there. I can only base my opinions on what I have read.

When you think about it, consider this: Schuenke is suing because she wanted to return to the Community Fire Protection District as a firefighter/paramedic and they terminated her. If, as she says, it’s her life and she wants to get back to it, then why is her lawsuit and her attorney saying that her career and her life as she knows it is over?

How else could they rationalize the lawsuit that isn’t about money?

I submit that, whenever lawyers and money are involved, then it’s about the money. Without knowing the amount being requested in the lawsuit, the worst case scenario is that it could bankrupt three (3) fire departments and five (5) individuals, even though her injuries were unintentional. That is; they were not inflicted with intent by any one person specifically through their actions or inactions, in my opinion.

I don’t know what kind of scene size up was done, what the conditions were when firefighters entered the structure or what SOGs and MA agreements dictated.

I only know that a lawsuit of this type could set off a chain of events that will bankrupt fire departments and paralyze even more fire departments, if firefighters are suing each other and their mutual aid partners.

I believe that this lawsuit was filed out of bitterness and retaliation. The money is a given (attorneys, you know?).

Unfortunately, the department that fired her wasn’t named in the lawsuit! How weird is that?

This case will bear close scrutiny. I am not taking any bets on its outcome.

I wish everyone involved the best of luck.


The article as submitted is published under The Adventures of Jake and Vinnie© umbrella and is the intellectual property of Art Goodrich a.k.a. xchief22 and ChiefReason. It is protected by federal copyright laws and cannot be re-printed in any form without expressed permission from the author. You may read other works by the author at

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  1. The fire department she worked for can not be named in the lawsuit becuase she is still reciving workers compensation from them for her injuries.

    It seems like a bad situation on all ends. I agree that we as a fire service should not take to legal actions against each other....but there needs to be an avenue for accountability when poor fireground decisions, poor leadership, and mismanagment lead to firefighter injuries. People have to be held accountable when people are injured, while I may not condone the lawsuit there was an obvious failure on both parties to communicate there needs leaving the injured firefighter feeling as if she had no other options. In a business were we are supposed to take care of each other firing someone for others negligence does not say alot for brother or in this case sisterhood.

  2. Robby O:
    The agency that Schuenke worked for cannot be sued with regards to her work comp claim.
    However; where she claims that someone else's actions caused her injuries, they can be brought into a civil action. So, it is somewhat confusing for me that her former "employer" wasn't brought in.
    This case is going to create alot of interest from officers, boards, fire departments and fire protection districts.
    An obvious concern will be a proliferation in this type of lawsuit. It could be precedent setting.
    The other concern is the fallout from this and how it affects the future employability of Schuenke.
    With her desire to get back to active duty with a fire department, will this national attention help her or be a detriment?
    I am trying to sit on the razor's edge; in this case, it's called "neutral", but as a fire district trustee, the potential for extraordinary legal fees followed by a large settlement is disconcerting.
    I realize that Schuenke was severely hurt and suffered greatly as a result.
    But, the taxpayers are innocent bystanders in this situation. This goes to the very bottom of why it's important to hire the right people, train them, lead them and document everything.
    That's not a bad thing, but there are departments who are still not ready for it.
    So, the potential for this to happen to someone else still exists.

  3. oh yikes: I had the opportunity to review a case some years back where an individual firefighter of 27 years sued the chief on down to the union prez....some 26 in all....what became of the case?? Settled with wcb paying out on behalf of the employer. The union managed to duck as well due to the complex negotiations that took place with management..Seems the union members who were sued by a union member had to be protected with you guessed it union lawyers all of which came out of members pockets n paychecks. All costly and much easier to mga (make it go away) if they settled which they did.....problem solved. The individual has rites. A firefighter is not above the law and is equal to all in the constatution and as a citizen. Where we get off on condeming the lady or not or any other citizen of this country is beyond my complete understanding. Getting off the soap box on this one means we step up to stepping down and see the real consequences of actions and inactions that cause harm. We are a community of deidicated people to be sure but above all else we need to be reminded that we are equal to and not above taking actions to protect ourselves from harm....incompetent leadership aside as a question....the individual has the rite to go after anyone and any thing that causes them to be injured. Workers Comp aside...we all have choices, some which are forced on us and others we make a choice on. We the People vs I am free and I was born free and have the rites given to me by the constatution. It does not make me a lesser citizen nor a greater citizen it does make me human. Looking at the long term health consequences of our New York firefighter brothers and sisters one can see that a few hundred law suites are in order.....the harm has been done...the price of that harm is a fair open balanced and equal opportunity to re dress.....ask the boston firefighters family who was killed in a tragic brake accident what they think...and you will be able to sketch the pic...
    My P.O.V. my way

  4. Yes; I agree that it is anyone's God-given right to sue for whatever reason anytime/anywhere, regardless of the far-reaching implications.
    We have become a litigious nation; we have found ourselves hesitant to get involved for that reason.
    Whatever triggers these monumental decisions to attempt to strip everyone named in the lawsuits right down to the parents that raised the person who caused harm, they will sleep better at night on a mattress stuffed with cash.
    My opinion is that this lawsuit is wrong for my own selfish reasons.
    Does this make the plaintiff a bad person?
    That is not for me to decide, nor will I based on the limited information that I have.
    I only believe that the lawsuit is bad, based on its precedent setting possibilities.

  5. Setting precedent is how one advances the idea of accountability weather it is in the public or private sector sense. Having a legal challenge does not mean the judge has gone to sleep nor does it mean the jury has taken to their beds and will snooze through the findings of fact and the reading of the law. Equal means that she will have a fair chance at giving her side of the argument as her side currently is not one that she feels is being heard. In the past we would deliver water to the fire by buckets. That changed and now we carry on board and deliver through hydrants. That did not happen overnite but evolved. The fire service is dynamic and is constantly evolving. This is another example of that evolution. There is competition as well to see where the public money gets spent how much and what does one get for the dollar. In this case dollars will be spent in defence and not on equipment or personal to add to the front line fight. That is what is sad about this event. Unconfortable? Definately. Precident setting? I do not think so. There are other cases pending and ones that have been satisfied out of court to keep the costs down but definately not an original idea or event.

  6. My concern and the reason for the blog was not to "sensationalize" this legal battle, but to create an awareness that, if this becomes the normal course and it may-we can't say that it won't-then we may lull ourselves or at least become complacent to the point that this type of post incident behavior will be an acceptable outcome simply because someone on the fireground disagreed with an incident command decision.
    It may also require us to carry our "qualifications" with us and have "tryouts" prior to entry to make sure that everyone is comfortable with the abilities of their team members.
    If you have been an incident commander, chief of department or a fire commissioner, you have GOT to be concerned about the potential and should take steps to make sure that your department is protected from both a training/education perspective and an insurance coverage perspective.
    Like firefighterveteran says so succinctly; it spends money where it will do the department the least good.

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  8. The comment above was removed because it contained profanity.

    Contrasting views and opinions are welcome, but please keep things civil!

  9. The comment above was removed because it contained profanity.

    Contrasting views and opinions are welcome, but please keep things civil!


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