Md. judge tosses claims in 2002 firefighter's death

The Evening Sun
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Hanover, Pa. — The 2002 heatstroke death of a firefighter trainee from Gettysburg wasn't shocking enough to support claims against a training officer and Frederick County, Md. officials, a federal judge has ruled.

U.S. District Court Judge Richard B. Bennett, of Baltimore, sent a case back to Maryland court for a ruling on a wrongful-death action included in the lawsuit filed by the parents of 23-year-old Andrew Waybright.

Waybright collapsed during a summer 2002 outdoor workout supervised by a training officer who did not recognize the trainee's hyperthermia symptoms or administer first aid, according to court documents.

Jim and Shirley Waybright, of Gettysburg, declined comment because of pending litigation. The filed the $1 million wrongful-death lawsuit in March 2004, alleging negligence by training officer Jeffrey Coombe, training academy leaders and the Frederick Board of County Commissioners.

But Kenneth M. Bennett, the Waybrights' lawyer, said Bennett applied the wrong standard and the Waybrights might appeal the ruling on the constitutional claims.

Bennett ruled March 1 the circumstances of Waybright's death did not "shock the conscience" – a standard he said must be met for a court to find that governmental conduct violated the 14th Amendment.

There was a heat index of 96 degrees at the Frederick County Public Safety Training Center on July 3, 2002, when firefighter trainees ran almost four miles. The complex's 2002 policy canceled outdoor activities when the heat index reached 100 degrees.

After about 3.2 miles and two sets of wind sprints, Waybright became dizzy and collapsed, according to a 2002 Occupational Safety and Health Administration report.

Instructors performed CPR on Waybright, but he was pronounced dead on arrival at Frederick Memorial Hospital with a body temperature of 107.4 degrees.

The case moved to federal court in January 2005 after the Waybrights amended the lawsuit to allege Waybright was deprived of his life in violation of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and a provision in the Maryland Constitution.

In the wrongful-death action sent back to state court, the defendants have moved for dismissal on the grounds that, should Andrew Waybright have survived, he could have brought a workers' compensation lawsuit against the complex, Berman said.

Berman said there is no precedent in Maryland for a situation like this, but if the state court dismisses the action, the Waybrights will have no relief.

"It leaves the possibility that the Waybrights may have no remedy at all after this tragic incident," Berman said.

Bennett wrote that only if the plaintiffs could show that Coombe had intended to injure Waybright could his conduct be said to shock the conscience.

"Regardless of the level of Coombe's alleged negligence, the evidence simply does not permit an inference of intent to harm," the judge wrote.

Berman, of Gaithersburg, Md., said Bennett should have applied a different standard, deliberate indifference, and left that issue for a jury to decide.

"We're extremely disappointed and, quite honestly, surprised," by Bennett's ruling, Berman said.

According to Berman, policies at the complex have since been completely rewritten, and include an updated weather policy that dictates how many instructors must accompany trainees, what trainees can wear and lowers the maximum temperature allowed for outdoor workouts.

Baltimore attorney Thomas V. McCarron, who represents 10 defendants other than Coombe, said he is hopeful of prevailing on the remaining issues but "I don't think anybody loses sight that at the end of the day, this is about a young man who passed away."

Before being hired as a recruit for the Frederick County fire company, Waybright served at Taneytown fire department for three years, and volunteered with the Harney, Md., fire department since he was 16.

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