Veteran firefighter Rodney Bingham was standing near the firehouse doors at Station 41 in Magnolia, pulling on his gear and preparing to climb onto an engine headed out to a call, when he felt a “knifelike pain in his ears,” his attorney said.
The fire captain for the station had pressed the button to activate the engine’s siren while Bingham was four feet away from the truck’s bumper, according to a lawsuit filed against the city by Bingham.
The captain’s action — which violated Seattle Fire Department policy prohibiting the activation of sirens inside a station — caused permanent damage to Bingham’s hearing and cost the city nearly a half-million dollars.
One week before Bingham’s lawsuit was scheduled to go to trial in King County Superior Court, the city of Seattle settled with Bingham for $495,000.
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Bingham, a 23-year veteran who still works for the Fire Department, suffered permanent injuries, including tinnitus, a disturbance to the auditory nerve that causes a sensation of ringing, roaring or constant noise.
The City Attorney’s Office declined Wednesday to comment on the lawsuit or the settlement.
Bingham’s attorney, Randolph Gordon, said it was in the city’s interest to settle the lawsuit because a jury might have awarded greater damages to Bingham if it were to be convinced that the injury was caused by an intentional rather than a negligent act.
“There is a difference between someone looking you in the eye and breaking your arm and someone accidentally tripping you and breaking your arm,” he said.
“With the settlement we will never know the answer to why the captain did that,” said Gordon.
“Did he do it to hurt Rod on purpose? Was it a prank? Was it a payback? He claimed he was confused, but he had to reach all the way across the front seat to press the button and instead of letting go, he held it.”
Seattle Fire Department spokesman Kyle Moore said the captain was not disciplined.
“There was no indication that his actions were deliberate,” Moore said.
According to court documents, the doors at Station 41 were not working correctly on Oct. 11, 2011, so it was decided that Bingham would stand by the door if the company was called out to make sure the door closed before he climbed aboard the engine.
When a call did come, other firefighters got into the engine while Bingham stood by the door, Gordon said. As Bingham stood near the engine’s bumper — where the siren is mounted — the siren was activated.
An expert in acoustics tested the siren and determined the sound pressure experienced by Bingham at that distance — four feet away — would be 100,000 times greater than the sound pressure experienced by a driver in a closed car 100 feet in front of an engine with an activated siren, court documents show.
Gordon said Bingham’s tinnitus makes it hard for him to sleep or hear his soft-spoken wife.
“What he really misses,” Gordon said, “is his quiet time.”
Christine Clarridge: firstname.lastname@example.org or 206-464-8983.