Firefighter suits and helmets

Suits claiming firefighters suffered hearing damage from exposure to sirens are proliferating around the country, prompting an order from the Superior Court of New Jersey for centralized management of suits against siren manufacturer Federal Signal Corp.

On Jan. 5, acting Administrative Director of the Courts Glenn Grant announced consolidation of suits by 70 current and former firefighters before Superior Court Judge Nelson Johnson in Atlantic County. The order pertained to two suits each from Essex and Hudson counties and one each from Cape May, Morris, Middlesex and Union counties.

The plaintiffs claim they suffered hearing loss due to long-term exposure to siren noise at high volumes. The suits claim the company failed to protect the plaintiffs from sound that was projected rearward, into the cabin of the fire truck. The suits target two products made by Federal Signal: the Q-Siren and the eQ2B Siren.

Federal Signal has settled some early cases, including one for $3.8 million in 2011, according to media accounts. More recently, the company says, it has received defense verdicts in seven cases tried to juries around the country.

Plaintiffs and defendants in the New Jersey cases both favored consolidation and asked for a venue in Bergen County, but the latter request was denied.

A pair of similar cases are pending in U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey: Alvarez v. American LaFrance and Carlucci v. Federal Signal. Those cases were consolidated for pretrial proceedings in June 2017, and are in the midst of discovery. Attorneys from Marc J. Bern & Partners in New York, who filed the six suits against Federal Signal in Superior Court of New Jersey, also filed the state’s two federal court cases.

Plaintiff lawyer Thomas Joyce, of the Bern firm, said in court documents that he would move for bifurcation of the case, with liability to be tried separately from damages. “Instantly, bifurcation on the issue of liability would, if defendant prevails, clear the court’s docket. In the alternative, if plaintiffs prevail, it would be a powerful factor to induce substantive settlement talks prior to the damages phase of the litigation.”

But Kenneth Meyer of McCarter & English in Newark said in a court filing that he opposed bifurcation, since prior cases had shown how liability, causation and damages could efficiently be tried together.

Counsel for both sides sought a Bergen County venue, citing its convenience to the Newark airport as well as McCarter & English’s offices in Newark and a majority of the parties. Joyce conceded, however, that Bergen and Middlesex counties already have seven mass torts each while Atlantic only had four. Grant’s order did not say why Atlantic County was picked.

Meyer said in a court document that Federal Signal denies causing the plaintiffs’ alleged hearing loss, or that it produces too much rearward noise. He said each plaintiff’s case would require relevant evidence to be obtained from employers, medical providers, unions, the military, and insurance providers. Such proceedings would be more efficient if it takes place under one judge, Meyer said in court papers supporting consolidation.

Meyer said each plaintiff’s unique history of noise exposure would be relevant to their bid for damages. That would encompass the design of each fire truck, where the siren was placed,  where in the truck a plaintiff sat, the number and length of emergency runs he made, his years of service, and any steps he took to protect himself from noise, like rolling up the window or wearing earplugs, Meyer said.

Joyce and others in his firm did not return calls about the case. Meyer declined to discuss the case.