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L.A. fire captain receives $3.75 million from jury

Times Staff Writer

In the latest bizarre court case involving the Los Angeles Fire Department, a jury has awarded $3.75 million to a male fire captain who said he was retaliated against for not making training exercises easier for women.

Fire Capt. Frank Lima alleged in his lawsuit against the city that he was told by superiors that he shouldn’t hold women to the same standards as men. The reason: The Fire Department was under pressure from City Hall to increase the number of women within its ranks.

Thursday’s judgment in the 2 1/2 -week case in Los Angeles County Superior Court was notable because it involved $2.96 million in noneconomic damages -- in other words, money for pain and suffering.

In his lawsuit, Lima alleged that he suffered heart problems and stress after the department tried to punish him and subsequently denied him certain assignments.

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The verdict comes at a time when the Fire Department is facing several other harassment or discrimination lawsuits. The most high-profile one involves Tennie Pierce, a firefighter who alleges discrimination because he was fed dog food by colleagues in 2004 as part of a racial stunt.

When the City Council attempted late last year to end the case by paying him $2.7 million, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa vetoed the action after a public outcry over the settlement’s size.

Also in the mix is another firefighter represented by Lima’s attorney, Gregory W. Smith. That case also alleges that the firefighter was retaliated against for not giving women preferential treatment.

“We had a very intelligent jury, and you don’t get these type of awards unless something is really amiss,” Smith said of the allegations raised by Lima. “Instead of recruiting qualified females for the department, they simply passed the ones that came in.”

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Jonathan Diamond, a spokesman for City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo, said the city was reviewing its options, including a possible appeal.

The Fire Department has been roiled by allegations of racial and sexual discrimination and retaliation over the last two years. The allegations reached such a heated level last year that Chief William Bamattre was forced to step down and eventually retire.

Lima’s case stemmed from an incident in 2004 in which he was overseeing a training drill that involved hoisting heavy ladders against a building.

According to the complaint, a woman who was in the exercise subsequently complained to Fire Department officials that she was singled out and harassed during the drill, causing her to be injured. The woman testified during the trial.

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Lima said that the woman did not complain at the time and that later, Andy Fox, an assistant fire chief, told him that women have to be treated differently in order to boost their numbers.

Lima was suspended for two days, but that was later rescinded and he instead was given a reprimand.

Fox, who oversaw the Fire Department’s disciplinary system, was reassigned earlier this year. He could not be reached for comment Friday. In his new job, he oversees risk management for the Fire Department, meaning he works at trying to prevent it from being sued.

Fire Chief Douglas Barry issued a statement Friday saying the department is trying to deal with its internal discipline issues “in a consistent, fair and expedient manner.”

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Steve Tufts, president of the city’s firefighters union, issued a statement praising Lima as a “family-oriented man who loves doing his job” and that he hoped the lawsuit would persuade the city to improve the way discipline is meted out within the department.

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steve.hymon@latimes.com


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