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Firefighter harassment lawsuit goes to jury

Four firemen taunted at a San Diego gay pride parade that they were forced to ride in seek millions from city.

October 01, 2008|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — A six-man, six-woman jury is set to begin deliberations Wednesday in a lawsuit brought by four San Diego firefighters who allege they were subjected to sexual harassment when they were ordered to participate in the 2007 gay pride parade.

In closing arguments Tuesday, the firefighters' attorney asked the jury to order the city to pay each firefighter $500,000 to $1 million for the damage they suffered from being taunted by spectators.

But the attorney for the city said the four deserve nothing, that being ordered to drive a firetruck in the parade is no different than being ordered to fight a fire and that dozens of city employees and officials participated in the parade without claiming any ill effects.

Charles LiMandri, the firefighters' attorney, said the city violated its own anti-sexual harassment policy by ordering the four into the parade even though they objected and other firefighters had complained about slurs and crude gestures from crowds at previous parades.

The city would never put female employees in a situation where "hand and tongue gestures of a sexual nature" could be anticipated, he told jurors.

"Can you imagine if a woman is working in an office and there's pornography on the computer next to her, and a supervisor says, 'Just avert your eyes,' " LiMandri said.

Chief Deputy City Atty. Maria Severson scoffed at the firefighters' complaints. While there were some "juvenile comments," the vast majority of the estimated 150,000 parade watchers applauded the firefighters and "treated them like rock stars," she said.

"Four million dollars for being in a parade for an hour and a half?" Severson said incredulously.

During the two-week trial, firefighters John Ghiotto, Chad Allison, Jason Hewitt and Alexander Kane testified that their treatment during the parade left them feeling powerless and violated. The four said they filed a lawsuit when Fire Chief Tracy Jarman refused to apologize for a policy that required firefighters to participate in parades when ordered.

During her testimony, Jarman, who marched ahead of the truck, said the Fire Department has changed its policy to make participation in parades voluntary.

LiMandri noted that the city prides itself on having a "100% response" when employees sense they are being sexually harassed. "Our city, which we love, failed them," LiMandri said of his clients.

Severson said the firefighters, even if they felt offended by the comments, were sitting in a firetruck that protected them from the crowd.

"We're not talking about walking or holding a sign," she said. "We're talking about sitting six feet off the ground with tons of metal around you."

The plaintiffs said that some parade watchers chanted, "Firemen, show us your hoses," as their firetruck passed.

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tony.perry@latimes.com

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