Payback's a bitch

Water-cooler gossip turned wicked early last week after it was learned that Orlando city officials had decided to ask the courts to make firefighters repay the $220,000 the city had spent defending itself against a lawsuit thrown out as "frivolous."

The public wanted to know how the city could be so calloused as to fail to notify firefighters of bad medical tests, as the dismissed suit alleged, then demand that they repay the city for exposing its allegedly poor medical care.

By late last week, Mayor Glenda Hood had backtracked, offering to drop the matter if firefighters don't sue the city again. Firefighters have declined that offer; their attorneys are still considering other legal options against the city.

Yet, making sick firefighters repay the city was never the intention, says City Attorney Scott Gabrielson. Rather, he said he hoped the action would discourage other attorneys from filing claims against the city that they can't back up.

Indeed, the city still is seeking $125,000 from firefighter attorneys Mark Morsch and Geoffrey Bichler.

"Normally I don't like to throw stones, but I'm pretty critical how this was handled from a lawyering standpoint," says Gabrielson.

City officials were annoyed last summer when the firefighters' attorneys delayed notifying the city that it was being sued. In the meantime, the city's reputation took a nose dive as sick firefighters showed up in the daily media, complaining of illnesses that they traced to a city clinic's failure to notify them of bad medical tests dating back 25 years.

In a hearing last October, Circuit Judge George A. Sprinkel IV asked Morsch 10 separate times what specific actions were committed by Hood and other non-medical officials named in the suit. Morsch never did answer Sprinkel sufficiently, and the suit was thrown out three months after it was filed.

The firefighters' attorneys say they lost the case on a technicality. Because of time constraints and costs, the attorneys chose to sue the city based not on medical malpractice but on a Florida Supreme Court case in which an Alachua County company withheld life-saving information from employees.

"Let me be very clear about this attorney-fee issue," says Bichler. "It makes no difference in the grand scheme of things. We will not be intimidated. We will not be silenced. We will proceed in a unified fashion to find out the truth. The fact we may owe attorneys' fees is not significant to either Mr. Morsch or myself."

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