Court Upholds Verdict For Firefighter In ‘Arson’ Case

Steven King was a paid firefighter for the Berryhill, Oklahoma Fire Protection District. The Fire Chief wanted to remove structures from property he owned and had received an estimate for the demolition of structures on his property in the amount of $10,000. Rather than paying to have the structures demolished, the Chief began planning a live burn training exercise on the property even though gasoline tank batteries were located on nearby property on three sides of his property, trains operated on tracks on the immediate east side of his property, electrical lines were near the structures, and there was a large tree that could have caught fire. Further, there was no water immediately available at the proposed burn site.

After learning about the Chief’s plan to conduct a live burn on his property, and believing the planned exercise would constitute arson, King reported his concerns to others in the Department. King also reported the matter to a Tulsa Fire Department employee. After the Tulsa Fire Department contacted the Berryhill Fire Department about the live burn, the exercise was canceled. King was later terminated from his employment. Believing his termination was in retaliation for his efforts to stop the live burn exercise, King sued the Department for retaliatory discharge.

A jury found that King acted to prevent arson and was wrongfully terminated for performing an act consistent with this clear and compelling public policy. The Department appealed, claiming that the burning of the structures for a fire district training exercise could not be a “malicious burning,” because it involved a burning with a just cause or excuse.

The Oklahoma Supreme Court upheld the jury’s verdict. The Court found that “the jury heard the accounts of both King and the Fire Chief concerning the plan to burn the structures, and more importantly, viewed their demeanor as they testified. The jury was free to consider and weigh the self-interest on the part of the Fire Chief, as well as the numerous factors that indicated burning of the structures would not be appropriate for training. The jury was likewise free not to believe the Fire Chief’s explanation that he intended the burn to be a training exercise. In doing so, the jury could reasonably conclude the ‘training exercise’ was a pretext and the attempt of the Fire Chief to do indirectly what he could not do directly, i.e., commit arson by burning the structures himself.

“It is well settled that an employer’s termination of an at-will employee in contravention of a clear mandate of public policy is a tortious breach of contractual obligations. Early on, this Court generally recognized that the employer has committed a wrong against the employee and society at large when the employee is discharged for doing that which is right in the public interest or refusing to do that which is wrong. Employees who report and complain of an employer’s unlawful or unsafe practices and whose actions seek to further public good by unmasking these breaches should be protected from an employer’s retaliation.”

King v. Berryhill Fire Protection District, 2013 WL 5316337 (Okla. 2013).