Lawsuits linking firefighter hearing loss to sirens ending quietly
The suits, filed by nearly 190 Buffalo firefighters, claim Federal Signal Corp. “knew or should have known” their sirens were harmful
By Phil Fairbanks
The Buffalo News
BUFFALO, N.Y. — Like their colleagues in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Chicago, firefighters in Buffalo believe there's a link between hearing loss and the sharp, piercing sounds of the sirens that accompany them to fires.
But four years later, the lawsuits they filed against the siren maker are ending and no one on either side is claiming victory.
The suits, filed by nearly 190 Buffalo firefighters, claim Federal Signal Corp. “knew or should have known” their sirens were harmful. The suits sought an unspecified amount in damages for each of the firefighters named.
In July, the suits against the siren maker started ending as part of an agreement between the two sides, but lawyers on both sides have repeatedly declined comment.
There is also no indication in court papers that firefighters received any compensation.
The Buffalo cases started ending after an appeals court in a similar but separate case in Philadelphia sided with Federal Signal, the company being sued.
Even more important, perhaps, the appeal courts took the unusual step of ordering the lawyers who represented the firefighters to pay attorneys' fees and costs associated with the Philadelphia case.
“We have long believed that many of the hearing loss cases filed against the company should never have been filed in the first instance," Jan Paul Miller, a lawyer for Federal Signal, said at the time. "This ruling vindicates our belief."
In the Philadelphia case, the appeals court said the firefighters' lawyers failed to conduct a meaningful presuit investigation and then filed lawsuits that resulted in substantial costs to the company and the courts.
"Such an uninformed rush to the courthouse skirts the norms of proper legal practice," the court said in its decision. "It should not be condoned.”
Local firefighters who were contacted by The Buffalo News said they believe their suits are still pending but otherwise declined to comment.
"No news is good news," said one firefighter who spoke on the condition he not be identified.
The local firefighters union, which is not a party to the suits but helped in providing hearing tests, indicated its members are still waiting for a settlement.
Joseph J. Cappelli and Marc J. Bern, the lawyers representing firefighters in Buffalo, did not return phone calls.
The federal court claims in Buffalo were filed three years after several similar suits resulted in a $3.8 million settlement by Federal Signal. The siren manufacturer said that settlement with 1,125 firefighters in Buffalo and other cities would result in an average of $3,380 for each of the firefighters.
The link between noise and hearing loss in firefighters is nothing new.
In 1992, the nation’s top fire official said noise is probably “the most underrated health hazard” for firefighters and emergency service personnel.
“The cases of hearing loss are irreversible and incurable,” U.S. Fire Administrator Olin L. Greene said at the time. “They are also preventable.”
More recently, a University of California study in 2007 found 40 percent of all firefighters were at risk of noise-induced hearing loss.
The study of more than 400 firefighters from 35 fire departments in California, Illinois and Indiana also found that firefighters use ear protection devices – earmuffs and earplugs – only about a third of the time.
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