L.A. to pay $2.5 million to two fire captains in Tennie Pierce case


The costs of a 2004 firehouse incident in which a black firefighter was fed dog food continues to ripple through a Los Angeles city budget already battered by recession.

The City Council approved the payment Friday of $2.5 million to two white fire captains, who won a court case alleging that the department racially discriminated against them in the punishments they received for the incident.

That figure was almost $900,000 more than the $1.6 million that a jury awarded the captains in 2008.

The extra costs to the city included about $550,000 in fees for the attorney representing Los Angeles fire captains Chris Burton and John Tohill at trial, on appeal and before the California Supreme Court, which declined to take up the matter. The costs also included some $380,000 in interest payments on the award and attorneys’ fees, at 7% annually, as required by state law, said Greg Smith, the attorney representing Burton and Tohill.

In addition, the city spent $705,000 to hire Ed Zappia, a private attorney, to argue its case in civil court, then on appeal and again before the state Supreme Court.

All of this went for a case that “we would have settled for $250,000 before it went to trial,” Smith said. “We made numerous efforts to try to get some sort of resolution, but always to deaf ears.”

The case stems from an incident in the Westchester firehouse in which black firefighter Tennie Pierce was fed dog food in his spaghetti.

The incident was a prank, firefighters later said, stemming from an earlier volleyball game in which Pierce, while playing well, kept saying “Feed the Big Dog,” referring to the nickname by which he was known.

Tohill bought the can of dog food, intending to put it in front of Pierce in the firehouse as a joke, Smith said. A Latino firefighter later cooked the dog food into the spaghetti and fed it to Pierce unbeknown to anyone else, Smith said.

The Latino firefighter was suspended for four days; he is now working in another part of the Fire Department. Tohill and Burton were suspended for a month. Burton has since retired; Tohill is retiring soon, Smith said.

The punishments ended their ability to gain promotions, Smith said, adding, “Their authority was completely undermined because they were labeled racist.”

The council voted to settle out of court a discrimination lawsuit brought by Pierce, at first awarding him $2.7 million. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa vetoed that figure after fierce political reaction to the award broke out and photos surfaced of Pierce involved in firehouse pranks. The council later approved a $1.5-million settlement to avoid trial. The city spent an additional $1.3 million on legal fees in the Pierce case.

“My understanding is that the city is in the mode of they won’t settle cases,” Smith said. “If you won’t settle cases, you’re always going to have the possibility of large hits.”

Another discrimination case that Smith brought before the city involved L.A. Police Officer Robert Hill. In September 2008, a jury awarded Hill $3.1 million in a case Smith says the city could have settled out of court for much less.