The Richmond Register

February 17, 2013

Ex-firefighter sues city alleging battery, wrongful discharge

Man alleges supervisor intentionally injured him in training exercise

By Sarah Hogsed
Register News Writer

RICHMOND — A recently fired Richmond firefighter is suing the city, claiming he suffered physical and verbal abuse at the hands of a battalion chief that his superiors did nothing to stop.

Kenneth Prather filed the civil lawsuit Jan. 31 in Madison Circuit Court, nine days after the city commission voted 3-2 to terminate his employment with the fire department. Jim Newby and Laura Morgan were the dissenting votes.

The suit states Prather was employed by the department for 14 years.

Prior to the vote to terminate Prather’s employment, City Manager Jimmy Howard recommended that Prather be laid off because he would be unable to return to work after an extended medical leave.

In his lawsuit, Prather claims he was the target of  “a pattern of abusive, harassing, inappropriate and threatening conduct” at the hands of Battalion Chief Sidney Lynch.

The suit states Fire Department Chief Buzzy Campbell and the city “were, or should have been, aware” of the abuse. Lynch and Campbell also are named as defendants in their individual capacities.

On Feb. 12, 2012, Prather and other firefighters were involved in training exercise in which a semi-opaque material was placed over their masks to simulate the low visibility they would encounter in a smoke-filled structure, according to the lawsuit.

The firefighters had to successfully travel through a maze as part of the exercise.

During his second time through the maze, Prather states he “felt something strike his back from above, causing him significant pain.”

After that exercise, the suit states that Lynch started verbally haranguing Prather about why it was taking him so long to go through the maze. Earlier that month, Prather had accused Lynch of making a derogatory remark about Prather’s wife, which was reported to a supervisor as well as to the fire chief.

The two men argued during the training exercise. Lynch became “increasingly angry” and was asked to leave the training facility by his supervisor, according to the lawsuit.

Prather later was told by other firefighters that they had witnessed Lynch putting his foot into Prather’s back at least twice during the maze exercise.

Prather states he submitted a written statement about the incident to Campbell and Assistant Fire Chief Wayne Long along with statements from firefighters who had witnessed the Feb. 21 incident.

The lawsuit states the city conducted an investigation of the incident, which reportedly confirmed that Lynch had injured Prather, and that the battalion chief’s conduct toward Prather “and others has established a pattern of harassment.”

Prather took a leave of absence after experiencing severe back pain following the training exercise, and after filing a worker’s compensation claim with the city, he had back surgery, the lawsuit states.

On Jan. 5, Prather was notified by the city manager he would recommend that Prather’s employment be terminated based on a belief that “there does not appear to be any likelihood that (Prather) will be able to resume (his) duties at anytime in the foreseeable future.”

Prather claims he asked the city on Jan. 14 to hold off on his termination until he received the results of his Functional Capacity Evaluation, which had been conducted the previous week.

However, Howard went ahead with his recommendation, and the commission voted to fire Prather.

Prather is suing the city, Lynch and Campbell for alleged battery, defamation, intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligent hiring, retention, promotion or supervision and wrongful discharge in violation of public policy.

Although no dollar amount is listed in the initial complaint, Prather is asking the court to find in his favor for costs and punitive damages related to past and future lost wages, employment benefits, embarrassment, humiliation and emotional and psychological distress.

The case has been assigned to Judge William G. Clouse, and no court dates have been set yet. Defendants typically have 30 days to respond to a complaint.