Wednesday, February 18, 2009
A jury found Tuesday that four San Diego firefighters were sexually harassed for being ordered to participate in a gay pride parade and awarded them combined damages of $34,300.
The firefighters claimed they were subjected to sexually charged conduct and lewd comments while riding a fire engine in the July 2007 parade, which drew about 150,000 spectators.
Charles LiMandri, the firefighters' attorney, called the awards "a little low," but said the verdict means no city employees will face similar treatment.
"That was the main thing," LiMandri said outside the courtroom. "That's what we've been fighting for for one and a half years and two trials."
LiMandri requested up to $1 million for each client at the first trial, which ended in October with jurors unable to reach a verdict. He didn't propose damages at the second trial but urged the jury to compensate each firefighter.
Deputy City Attorney Don Shanahan said the city will appeal the verdict and oppose any motions to pay the firefighters' legal fees.
In his closing argument, LiMandri described the parade as sexually charged and alcohol-fueled. He said his clients were targets of vulgar gestures and catcalls while being forced to watch barely clothed men and women simulate sex acts and touch themselves and one another.
"The Fire Department knew what goes on there," LiMandri told the jury.
A crew that volunteered to ride a fire engine pulled out shortly before the parade because the captain's mother died. LiMandri told the jury that department supervisors didn't try to find other volunteers, but gave the assignment to his clients - Alex Kane, Chad Allison, Capt. John Ghiotto and Capt. Jason Hewitt. The four firefighters worked the city's Hillcrest area, home to a large gay population where the parade is held.
The firefighters' attorney argued that their clients objected but weren't taken seriously. The city said the firefighters expressed discomfort but didn't complain of sexual harassment at the time.
Shanahan said the firefighters met after the parade with the department's top three officers, but weren't satisfied after Chief Tracy Jarman apologized and promised to change the department's policy and use only volunteers in the parade.
"The department bent over backwards," Shanahan told jurors.
Ghiotto, after the verdicts were announced, said the city did nothing for them.
"There was wrongdoing that day," he said. "We all agreed on it. We felt that unless we stood up for ourselves, it would happen again."