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Mo. news outlet files motion to unseal records in fatal fire engine crash

The Kansas City Star seeks the unredacted information in a dispute between the city and union over the firefighter’s employment

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Three people were killed on Dec. 15, 2021, when a fire truck collided with an SUV and struck a building on Broadway just north of Westport Road. Emergency crews were on the scene Thursday morning clearing debris and hunting for possible victims.

Rich Sugg/rsugg@kcstar.com/TNS

By Kendrick Calfee
The Kansas City Star

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The Kansas City Star has filed a motion to unseal redacted court documents in a dispute between the city of Kansas City and the International Association of Firefighters, Local 42, over the employment of a firefighter found guilty of killing three people in a deadly 2021 crash in Westport.

The filing comes as the city and firefighter’s union have been locked in a multiyear legal battle over whether the city can fire the firefighter for causing the crash.

On Dec. 15, 2021, firefighter Dominic Biscari, 23, was behind the wheel of a Kansas City Fire Department pumper, which had activated its lights and sirens. The fire truck was speeding when it ran a red light and entered the intersection of Westport Road and Broadway Boulevard, where it struck a Honda CRV. The force of the crash propelled the vehicles northwest, causing them to hit a pedestrian before slamming into a building.

Three people died in the crash, including Jennifer San Nicolas and Michael Elwood, who were in the Honda, and Tami Knight, the pedestrian.


Dominic Biscari has been on unpaid leave from the Kansas City Fire Department, which is seeking termination

Biscari pleaded guilty to three counts of involuntary manslaughter and was placed on three years of probation.

The redacted documents filed in Jackson County District Court are part of the ongoing arguments between the union and the city on whether an arbitrator overstepped their authority in the employment dispute involving Biscari.

Local 42 filed a grievance with the city in March 2023, claiming the city violated the Collective Bargaining Agreement between the city and the union when Fire Chief Ross Grundyson said the city would seek Biscari’s termination.

Earlier this year, a hearing was held on the union grievance. When an arbitrator reached a decision on the dispute and issued an opinion and award, the city filed a motion claiming the arbitrator acted outside of their authority.

Local 42 filed a motion to stay in support of the arbitration award and its proceedings. The court denied a motion by the union to file its exhibits, or support for its arguments, under seal.

When the city filed its motion, it redacted the arbitrator’s opinion and award entirely. Local 42 redacted most of the same document, blacking out the first seven pages and leaving select portions of the ruling viewable. Other documents filed in support of their arguments were also heavily redacted.

“The only reasonable explanation for these extreme redactions is that the city and firefighter’s union don’t want to be transparent with the people of Kansas City on an issue of indisputable public importance,” said Greg Farmer , The Star’s executive editor. “That’s not acceptable, and The Star will do all we can to fight against efforts like this to do the people’s business in secrecy.”

Unredacted details of arbitration

The first unredacted portion of the arbitrator’s decision — on page eight of the document — argues that while Biscari may have been negligent, he was not 100% at fault for the crash in Westport. The arbitrator said “a substantial portion of the fault” in the crash was on the driver of the Honda that Biscari crashed into, claiming the Honda driver was speeding and failed to stop for the fire truck.

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According to charging documents, Biscari was traveling 51 mph in a 35 mph zone and had run a red light at the time of the crash.

Fault may also lie with the city, the arbitrator claimed, for not properly training Biscari and not installing traffic systems that automatically turn green for oncoming emergency vehicles.

The arbitrator also ruled Biscari was denied due process when the city said it would seek his termination after the crash.

A collective bargaining agreement between Local 42 and the city takes precedence over an ordinance that allows the city to terminate employees charged with a felony, the arbitrator said in the opinion.

In testimony to the arbitrator, Local 42 cited examples of Kansas City firefighters who were involved in vehicle crashes but were not disciplined by the city in the same manner as Biscari. The union also gave examples of employees who had been convicted of or pleaded guilty to serious felonies and were not disciplined.

Those examples were redacted by Local 42, but used to support the arbitrator’s finding that Biscari was not disciplined in the same manner as other employees who faced similar charges.

The city said Biscari’s situation is different because the felony charges were for an incident that happened while he was on duty as a firefighter. The city acted in good faith, it said, by suspending Biscari pending adjudication of his felony case. Other incidents Local 42 cited, the city said, happened while the firefighters were off duty.

The arbitrator ruled that on-duty and off-duty charges shouldn’t determine the level of disciplinary action.

“Whether a city employee/member of the Fire Department commits a felony while on duty or while off duty does not affect that employee’s ability to perform appropriately assigned duties on the job,” the arbitrator wrote in the opinion.

The city argues the sole issue presented to the arbitrator was whether the city had just cause and afforded Biscari due process.

But the hearing delved into determining appropriate disciplinary action for Biscari. Both parties acknowledge this happened in their court filings.

Ultimately, the arbitrator ruled Biscari should be suspended without pay for three days. The city and fire department were directed to make Biscari whole, including back pay and all employee benefits outlined in the CBA. The city was also directed to remove any references to the incident in Biscari’s personnel file, other than a mention of the three-day suspension and a statement that he was involved in a motor vehicle accident while on duty that due to his negligence and the negligence of others resulted in fatalities.


Three people were killed when a Kansas City fire engine struck a vehicle and crashed into a building

According to the arbitrator’s ruling, Biscari could return to work and be authorized to drive a fire truck. The city was directed to reimburse Local 42 for its costs in pursuing the employment dispute and be liable for any fees.

The city argues the award and ruling by the arbitrator goes beyond its power, and explicitly does so in the awarding of expenses. Local 42 argues it does not.

According to the city, the arbitrator’s finding of Biscari’s negligence, the three-day suspension for that negligence, and Local 42’s costs associated with pursuing the grievance went beyond its authority.

“Although the City believes the award is so intrinsically flawed that it must be vacated in its entirety, the City moves, in the alternative, to modify or correct the award,” Senior Associate City Attorney Tara Kelly wrote in the motion to vacate.

In the aftermath of the crash, several civil lawsuits were filed and Kansas City paid more than $1.3 million to the family members of the victims.

The family of Michael Elwood, one of the victims, said in a statement they hope the civil actions “bring about meaningful safety changes within the fire department to reduce the likelihood of future tragedies.”

A case management conference for the city’s motion against the arbitration award is scheduled for 9 a.m. Aug. 19 in Division 18 of Jackson County District Court.

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