Allowing Officers And Firefighters Right To Sue Employer For Injuries Does Not Violate State Constitution

The City of Seattle, Washington hired Kevin Locke as a firefighter in 2000 and sent him to a 12-week firefighter training course. During the tenth week of training, Locke sustained injuries when he fainted from dehydration and fell from a 50-foot ladder while performing a practice rescue with a 120-pound mannequin. Gary Lindell, a Seattle police officer, died from injuries he sustained when he fell from his service horse during a 1999 training exercise for the Seattle Police Mounted Patrol Unit.

Locke’s and Lindell’s families sued the City, contending that the City’s negligence caused the injuries. The lawsuits were brought under the “right to sue” provision in Washington’s law enforcement and firefighter retirement system, which allows officers and firefighters to sue their employers for damages over the amount received through the workers’ compensation system.

When the City challenged the constitutionality of the provision in the retirement laws allowing such suits, the Washington Supreme Court became involved in the case. The Court upheld the legality of the “right to sue” provisions in the law.

The City’s main argument was that the “right to sue” statute violated the “privileges and immunities” clause in the Washington state constitution. The clause, similar to that in the constitutions of most states, provides: “No law shall be passed granting to any citizen, class of citizens, or corporation other than municipal, privileges or immunities which upon the same terms shall not equally belong to all citizens, or corporations.” The City contended that the “privileges and immunities” clause was violated because while the City must pay workers’ compensation benefits, the statute prevents it from enjoying like immunity under the workers’ compensation system with other employers. The Court dismissed this argument summarily, finding that municipal corporations (as opposed to individuals) could not claim a harm to their own interests under the “privileges and immunities” clause.

The City shifted gears a bit, and also argued that firefighters and police officers should not enjoy special rights that do not belong to other employees, i.e., the right to sue the City. The Court was unimpressed with this argument as well, holding that “the City does not show how it has standing to complain about this asserted unequal treatment. We recognize that standing requirements are sometimes relaxed where a municipal corporation seeks to challenge on equal protection grounds the constitutionality of a legislative act, provided that the controversy is of sufficiently serious importance. This principle should not be applied here. Allowing the City to indirectly bring a challenge that it is not entitled to make directly would contravene the constitution’s plain intent.”

Locke v. City of Seattle, 2007 WL 4340501 (Wash. 2007).

This article appears in the March 2008 issue