CHARLESTON - A former Charleston firefighter is alleging he was not only injured during a training exercise, but was also later terminated when he threatened to report the unsafe conditions in which the exercise took place, and subsequent falsification of records.
Both the City of Charleston, and the Charleston Fire Department are named as co-defendants in a lawsuit filed by Eric M. King. In his complaint filed in Kanawha Circuit Court on Sept. 8, King, a South Charleston resident, alleges he suffered permanent injuries while as a probationary firefighter, and fired after he threatened to blow the whistle on the manner in which he was injured.
According to court records, King started with CFD on July 25, 2005. However, a month later he was called to active duty by the U.S. Army where he served in Kuwait for the next 14 months.
Though he was allowed to resume work as a probationary firefighter in October 2006, King was initially denied the same automatic pay increase his classmates received. Citing the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act, King eventually received the pay increase, and continued as a probationary firefighter for the next 10 months.
According to King's suit, in order for probationary firefighters to be released from probation, they must take and pass the Job Related Skills Test and Practical. The test, which last for one hour, requires the firefighter to "wear full bunker gear, which weighs roughly fifty pounds, and a self-contained breathing apparatus."
During the test, the firefighter can take two, two-minute breaks for rest and hydration. However, he or she is "required to have all gear, including the SCBA, on within 45 seconds of the end of the break."
After arriving for a scheduled shift at 7 a.m. on Sept. 8, 2007, King was informed "without notice" he was to take the test at 9 a.m. at the Charleston Civic Center. At a time not specified in court records, King, while taking the test, lost consciousness, and was transported to Charleston Area Medical Center.
Though his loss of consciousness was believed to be a result of heat stroke, records show King was treated for "syncope, brachycardia, and acute renal failure." Syncope is a temporary loss of consciousness as a result of insufficient flow of blood to the brain, and brachycardia results from a below-normal heart rate, usually less than 65 beats per minute.
Court record show King was released from CAMC the next day. However, he was admitted three days later after complaining of chest pains, and remained hospitalized for the next five days.
In his suit, King alleges the test was administered by "uncertified Charleston Fire Department trainers who failed to provide [him] with the required rest and hydration during the Test." Failure to allow him to take the two breaks was the "direct and proximate cause" of his injuries.
Records show King was not cleared to return to work by his cardiologist until January 2008. During this time, King filed a workers' compensation claim, and on Oct. 1, 2007, prepared to report CFD's alleged violation of safety standards, and falsification of records.
It is unclear as to what records were allegedly falsified, and to whom King was planning to report CFD.
However, in an effort to thwart his whistle-blowing, King alleges CFD on Oct. 19, extended his probationary period by 85 days. After he protested the probation extension on Nov. 7, King maintains two city employees contacted him "and threatened that if he continued to protest the decision, he faced the possibility of termination."
Though the employees are not identified in court records, King says he dropped the complaint "under duress."
Eventually, records show King was terminated from CPD on May 30, 2008. He alleges his termination "was motivated, at least in part, by his intention to report the Defendants' violation of commonly accepted safety standards and the falsifying of official records" and also in part for his "attempt to receive workers' compensation benefits for his injury."
In his suit, King, 35, claims that as a result of the city's and CFD's conduct he incurred " a loss of income, fringe benefits and other valuable job rights." Also, as a result of the brachycardia King had to undergo surgery on Dec. 10, 2007 to have implanted a cardiac pacemaker.
King's wife, Tina, 37, is listed as a co-plaintiff in the suit. She makes a claim for loss of consortium.
Along with interest, court costs and attorney fees, the Kings seek damages in the amount of $ 1 million. They are represented by Jacqueline L. Sikora, and Gary S. Wigal with the Morgantown law firm of Gianola, Barnum, Wigal and London.
The case is assigned to Judge Tod J. Kaufman
Kanawha Circuit Court, case number 09-C-1662