Washington State Supreme Court: Widows May Sue Seattle
Posted on Dec 17, 2007
In a unanimous decision, the state Supreme Court has ruled in favor of an injured Seattle firefighter and the widow of a Seattle police officer, both of whom had sued the city for negligence.
In an opinion published Thursday, the justices found that both firefighter Kevin Locke and the widow of Officer Gary Lindell had the right to sue the city under a provision of the state's pension plan for police officers and firefighters.
"I'm overjoyed by it," Sgt. Rich O'Neill, president of the Seattle Police Officers' Guild, said of the ruling. "I think it sends a strong message to the city that officers and their families can hold the city liable."
The ruling involves both the case of firefighter Kevin Locke and that of Margaret Lindell, widow of Officer Gary Lindell.
Locke was a firefighter recruit who was hurt during a training class in June 2000. The training took place over the course of several warm days, and Locke, suffering the effects of heat stress, passed out while trying to carry a dummy down a ladder in a mock rescue and fell headlong to the pavement below. He was saved from landing on his head only by the quick actions of a firefighter who managed to strike Locke as he fell, causing him to land on his feet. Still, he broke several bones in his body and cannot work as a firefighter.
After his recovery, he was given a job in the Fire Department's dispatch center.
Locke successfully sued the city, contending that those in charge of the training class were negligent in part because they failed to ensure that recruits were adequately hydrated, which led to Locke's accident. In 2004, a jury awarded him $1.8 million.
Lindell, the widow of Gary Lindell, filed a lawsuit in February 2005 following his death.
Lindell had been a mounted patrol officer when, in May 1999, he was thrown from his horse and struck his head during training at the old facility used by Seattle police. He was never again able to work as a police officer. The department gave him a civilian position instead. He died in 2002 after suffering a seizure.
Margaret Lindell contends in her lawsuit that the city was negligent in its maintenance of the facility, in its training procedures and in its equipment. At the time, mounted officers wore cowboy hats instead of protective helmets. The case has been on hold pending this appeal.
After the firefighter won at trial, the city fought the jury's decision, but lost in the Court of Appeals. By the time they were ready to appeal that ruling, Margaret Lindell had filed her lawsuit.
The city challenged both lawsuits on the same grounds, arguing that the state law that allows such suits to be filed by police officers and firefighters violates the state constitution. It had hoped both cases would be dismissed.
The state Law Enforcement Officers' and Fire Fighters' Retirement System act specifically provides a "right to sue" provision, allowing them to sue for damages over the amount they get under workers' compensation.
But lawyers for the city challenged this provision, arguing that it violated the state constitution, which grants sovereign immunity to cities.
Thursday, the state Supreme Court ruled that there is no violation, and it upheld both the Appeals Court decision and that of the original jurors in Locke's case.
Calls to the City Attorney's Office were not returned Thursday.
Locke, who continues to be treated for pain associated with his injuries, said he was happy with the decision but will wait to see what the city lawyers do next.
"I'm just hoping someday it'll be over," he said.
The lawyer who represented Locke during his jury trial, said the city should quit fighting the courts on this matter.
"The city has fought Kevin the entire way," he said. "Hopefully, with this decision they'll get the message."