Friday, January 8, 2010

Liability?

The story about the Dunmore firefighter who sued the borough came to a conclusion yesterday with a $150,000 verdict. Even more interesting is the finding that two council members are to be held personally liable for $1,000 each. Read the article here.

I spoke to a spouse of someone with some fairly in-depth knowledge of the case earlier in the week, and they insisted that this gentleman was very badly mistreated in what amounted to a personal vendetta against him. Apparently the source was pretty consistent with what the jury apparently heard, given the award. Note that this firefighter did not, to the best of my knowledge, lose any wages or benefits as a result of these actions; instead, the case was one of his civil/due process rights being violated. Regardless, given the amounts involved (seemingly high to us, but given the cost of putting on a trial maybe not so much), I'm not sure that there will be an appeal.

The most interesting part of this lies in the two members of Dunmore borough council being held personally liable for $1,000 each. I obviously didn't attend the trial and it's not abundantly clear from the Times article just why these two are being required to pay up (as opposed to others involved). However the underlying concept here, namely that these two members of council are personally liable, should make all of us take a moment and consider just what the real implications will be. Now the "anonymous experts" on both sides of this have already been posting comments to the story right and left, but I think the real considerations here are much more complicated than simply "evil, greedy fireman" or "evil, conniving council members".

Why?

If you take the position that the council members should be held personally liable, then that does in fact create the possibility that any elected official could be held civilly liable for their actions. Remember, there were no accusations of criminal activity here so comparisons to (for example) the Luzerne County Monster Judges isn't fair or accurate. Also, the standard for proof in a civil case is substantially lower than that of what is required in a criminal case. Given a sympathetic plaintiff and a good lawyer, couldn't many, many actions by elected officials then create exposure to personal liability? I'm not defending the actions of the council members here, but honestly would you want to serve in elected office knowing that you and your family's finances could be negatively impacted by something you did in office? Good, reasonable people could decide not to run for office simply out of financial fear.

On the other side of the coin, being an elected official doesn't give anyone carte blanche to do whatever they want under the guise of official actions. Maybe part of the problems in NEPA is the fact that elected and appointed officials have, for far too long, felt that they were accountable and answerable to no one. In the absence of a personal desire to govern honestly, maybe the fear of being held personally accountable for misdeeds is as good a motivator as any for insuring that officials don't treat their offices as excuses to recklessly exercise authority.

As I noted above, this isn't a simple case and it doesn't involve simple issues. It should, however, make all of us stop and think though.

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