Lawsuits in Mo. fire truck crashes reveal conflicting red light directives
Kansas City Fire Chief Ross Grundyson issued a directive in February to eliminate confusion about NFPA standard, FD guidelines after fatal crash in 2021
By Mike Hendricks
The Kansas City Star
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Kansas City taxpayers have spent $2.1 million and may be on the hook for another $1.5 million to settle lawsuits in connection with a crash 18 months ago that killed three people when a fire truck ran a red light in Westport.
The tragedy and expense — but for a state law limiting damage awards, it would have been much more — might have been avoided had the Kansas City Fire Department learned from a similar crash that occurred months earlier, according to a lawyer who represented the woman who was critically injured in that wreck.
The Star has also learned that had officials taken a good look at what happened in the Northland crash that permanently disabled now 79-year-old Huda Saad in June of 2021, they would have discovered that their own rules and policies were in conflict over when fire trucks were required to stop at red lights.
“What is so unfortunate is that Mrs. Saad’s collision and serious injuries occurred six months before the Westport tragedy, and both involved a KCFD firetruck going through an intersection on a red light, which is prohibited under 4.13 of the KCFD rules,” attorney Douglass Noland said.
Because Saad survived, however, her wreck garnered little to no public attention following the initial news coverage. Nor did the fire department act to prevent a similar occurrence until after the Westport crash that killed SUV driver Jennifer San Nicholas, her passenger, Michael Elwood, and pedestrian Tami Knight.
On Feb. 10 of this year, Interim Fire Chief Ross Grundyson issued a directive instructing drivers of fire apparatus to come to a complete stop at intersections before proceeding through a red light when on emergency calls. That has long been the industry standard under the National Fire Protection Association guidelines.
The requirement that trucks come to a complete stop at red lights is not new for the Kansas City Fire Department, either. Drivers of Kansas City fire trucks have long been required to stop before proceeding through a red light, “unless all lanes can be accounted for by the driver during an emergency response,” according to the rule Noland cited.
However, the department’s general operational guidelines were in conflict and did not require a full stop at a red light under most circumstances. Grundyson’s directive was aimed at eliminating that confusion, department spokesman Jason Spreitzer said Tuesday.
Noland’s criticism came in the wake of the city council’s vote last week to approve a $488,755 payment to settle his client’s lawsuit. Saad sued the city and the driver of the fire pumper truck that T-boned the driver’s side of the 2015 Nissan Altima she was driving shortly after noon on June 9, 2021.
That is the maximum the city was obligated to pay under the state’s sovereign immunity law that limits liabilities for local governments. The payments to survivors of victims of the Wesport crash and the owner of a building damaged in the crash were also capped at the statutory maximum, which was $459,893 when they were settled last year.
The truck that hit Saad’s car was southbound on North Oak Trafficway when it hit her eastbound sedan near the middle of the intersection with NE 96th Street. She had the green light and, according to the lawsuit, did not hear the siren or see the truck until it hit her.
According to the pumper’s on-board data recorder, the truck was going 23 mph at impact. Seconds before it was going twice that speed on what turned out to be a false alarm.
Pumper trucks loaded with water can weigh 19 to 30 tons. A Nissan Altima weighs between 1½ and 2 tons. The impact caused so much damage to the front half of Saad’s car that she was extricated from the rear of the vehicle after the door was cut off, the police report said.
Saad was taken by ambulance to a hospital in critical condition.
Her back, jaw, pelvis and a rib were broken, according to the lawsuit. She suffered a concussion and an aortic valve to her heart required surgery. Noland said she required weeks of hospitalization and rehabilitation, resulting in more than $500,000 in medical bills and an unspecified permanent disability.
The driver of the pumper truck, now 49-year-old John Pisciotta, and three others on the crew were treated for minor injuries.
Pisciotta was not disciplined. He and the other firefighters are still on the job, according to department spokesman Jason Spreitzer.
Dominic Biscari, the driver of the truck in the Westport wreck, is suing to get his job back. The city council last week authorized the city legal department to engage in further settlement negotiations with survivors who claim the city should be responsible for Biscari’s potential liability. The city had declined to represent him in court.
The Saad case was set for trial in September. According to Noland, the settlement saves “all parties considerable expense and anguish that would come from replaying the tragic event of June 9, 2021.”