Court Dismisses Firefighter's Deliberate Indifference Claim

By Robyn Hagan Cain on June 08, 2012 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

After Racheal Wilson, a new recruit for the Baltimore City Fire Department, tragically died during a "live burn" training exercise, her survivors and estate filed a civil rights lawsuit against the Baltimore mayor and city council, alleging that the Baltimore City Fire Department violated Wilson's substantive due process rights by staging the exercise with deliberate indifference to Wilson's safety.

This week, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a lower court's decision to dismiss the claim on a 12(b)(6) motion.

Wilson's family alleged that her death was avoidable with adequate preparations for the exercise, and that the Fire Department created unduly dangerous conditions in staging the exercise. The family claimed that the conditions and circumstances surrounding the exercise -- like improper equipment and inadequate access to water -- amounted to "willful violations of nationally-recognized safety standards for live burn training exercises."

The district court granted the Fire Department's motion to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), holding that the deliberate indifference standard is normally applied only to those in the government's custody. Wilson, by contrast, was not in custody and had an option of declining to participate in the exercise, or even declining to be a firefighter.

The district court, instead, applied a standard requiring the showing of intent to harm and concluded that "however reckless" the Fire Department may have been, its actions did not "rise to the level of a constitutional violation."

The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, applying applying Collins v. City of Harker Heights and Waybright v. Frederick County, affirmed the district court.

Because the complaint did not purport to allege that the Fire Department staged the live burn training exercise with the purpose of causing harm to Wilson or to any other recruit, the Fourth Circuit concluded that it fell short of alleging a substantive due process violation.

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