Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Tina Hunt on firefighter liability

Wildland firefighters, and perhaps structural firefighters, will be living with the specter of the Thirtymile Fire prosecution for a long time.

This was the case, as you probably know, where a wildland firefighter, Ellreese Daniels, was charged with seven felony counts after his crew was overrun on a fire and four of them were killed. Eventually Ellreese pleaded guilty to some misdemeanor counts and was sentenced to 90 days of jail time in a work-release facility and 3 years of probation by judge Fred Van Sickle of the U. S. District Court in Spokane, Washington.

There are many problems with the concept of sending firefighters to prison for mistakes made on the fire ground--we have covered them extensively on this blog, for example HERE and HERE. But we can't afford to turn our head and let this threat fester, and then erupt later when the next firefighter is threatened with prison. We need to fix it so that it can't happen again.

The following was written yesterday, December 2, by Tina Hunt, the attorney who represented Ellreese. It is reprinted here with her permission.
"I feel that firefighters should still remain concerned that criminal charges could be brought based upon statements they make during investigations of burnover and fatality investigations. Felony false statement charges can be very difficult to win, and that was certainly my concern in the Thirty Mile case.

While there were others who gave statements which may have been construed as false, only Ellreese was charged, and I felt as if they charged him only because they could hold the hammer of the manslaughter charges over him.

The prosecution in the 30 Mile case was ridiculous; I will always feel that way, and I would NEVER EVER EVER allow a firefighter to make statements during any investigation if I represented them.

Because there is no check on the power of the government to bring these kinds of charges, I believe that the agencies should get together, along with the AG (Attorney General), to ensure that the goals of a burnover/fatality investigation are not chilled by the threat of prosecution."
The sad truth is, if a firefighter is involved in a serious accident, they need to Lawyer Up, and keep their mouths shut.

UPDATE @ 1:53 MT Dec. 3:

Tina has some additional news about Ellreese. The judge modified his sentence from 90 days in a work release center to 90 days of house arrest so that he can maintain his employment. He is allowed to leave the house for work and other pre-approved activities.


Anonymous said...

and they wonder why we don't want to move up the chain... let's see, 1+1 is.......

Anonymous said...

Did Tina Hunt write the last sentence or was that added by Bill G? "The sad truth is...."

Anonymous said...

Not to sure Lawyering up and keeping your mouth shut is the right way to go. Shouldn't we cooperate with investigations but in doing so, don't lie, state only the facts, keep your answers short and to the point.

Is there any group out there that acts as advocates for those invloved in investigations to offer some legal advice and support at no cost?

Different from the WFF who supports families and FF involved in serious accidents and fatalities.

If not, this would be a worthwhile cause. As someone who has been a part of a fatality investigation it is not clear what your rights are, the investigation process isn't clear although it is spelled out in the red book. Other investigations may occur outside what is spelled out in the red book. What are your rights and responsiblities when it comes to these types of investigations??

Bill Gabbert said...

To answer the question about who wrote the last sentence about "The sad truth is...", that was written by Bill G. I added quotation marks to Tina's quote to make it more clear.

It is very important to get a lawyer during a serious accident investigation. You'll be asked similar questions many times, possibly over a period of months or years, and it will be impossible to give the same exact answer every time. Memories change over time, and this can result in "giving a false statement" to an investigator, a felony.

I am not aware of any source for free legal advice. Maybe the Wildland Firefighter Foundation has some ideas.

Anonymous said...

The whole thing makes me want to just jump right in there and stay home!

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