Berlin EMT Files $8M Civil Suit Over Alleged Abuses

BERLIN — The other shoe dropped this week in the ongoing dispute between Berlin and its fire company when a former firefighter and EMT filed an $8 million civil suit against the department over an alleged pattern of harassment and intimidation over his perceived sexual orientation.
Former firefighter/paramedic Zachary Tyndall, through his attorney James Otway, filed suit in U.S. District Court alleging consistent harassment and intimidation carried out by the department’s leadership over his perceived sexual orientation. The suit, which names the Berlin Fire Company, Chief Bryon Trimble, Assistant Chief Derrick Simpson, former EMS Supervisor Norris Donohue, Jr. and BFC President David Fitzgerald as defendants, is seeking $2 million in compensatory damages and another $6 million in punitive damages.
The suit alleges individual defendants carried out a “deliberate and conscious effort” to harass and intimidate Tyndall in an attempt to drive him out of the department because of the defendants’ perception of Tyndall’s sexual orientation. The alleged pattern of abuse included repeated derogatory slurs and a pattern of offenses aimed at driving Tyndall to quit the department he had been a full-time employee of since 2008 and a cadet since he was 14 years old.
According to the complaint, Tyndall first complained to Trimble and urged him to cease and desist the name-calling and other abuse to no avail. Tyndall then complained to Simpson, Donohue and ultimately Fitzgerald, but the abuse and harassment allegedly continued. Frustrated with the lack of action, Tyndall ultimately took his grievances to Mayor Gee Williams and the town’s human resources director.
After Berlin initiated an investigation into the alleged abuses, the town’s elected officials voted to pull the municipal funding for its fire department last summer.
In addition, Donohue last summer filed a civil suit in Worcester County Circuit Court against the town of Berlin and its elected officials over his abrupt dismissal from the department amid allegations of harassment and intimidation in a case that essentially boiled down to a debate over who has authority to discipline or dismiss fire department employees. That case has twice been dismissed at the Circuit Court level and is now in the Maryland Court of Special Appeals.
According to the complaint, the alleged pattern of abuse and harassment was a calculated effort on the part of the department’s leadership to coerce Tyndall to leave the department over his perceived sexual orientation.
“There has been a deliberate and conscious effort on the part of the defendants to harass and intimidate Zack Tyndall and drive him from the department because of the individual defendants’ perception of his sexual orientation,” the complaint reads. “Many of the acts complained of were witnessed by other members of the Berlin Fire Company. Most were reported to the leadership of the company and many were, in fact, committed by the leadership of the company.”
When Tyndall’s complaints up and down the ranks in the department fell on deaf ears, he turned to the town for relief, which only exacerbated the problem, according to the complaint.
“That action only made day-to-day life at the firehouse more difficult than before,” the complaint reads. “The insults, derogatory comments and other harassment increased in severity and number.”
The situation came to a head in December 2012 when Tyndall, acting as an on-duty paramedic responded to what turned out to be a fatal accident on Route 50. Tyndall arrived and immediately began administering assistance to a passenger involved and had to “bag breathe” the victim to maintain respiration. Tyndall continued to bag breathe the victim, who had to be cut from the vehicle, and was ultimately able to get him onto a stretcher. However, the complaint filed this week alleges members of the BFC who responded to the accident essentially turned their collective backs on Tyndall’s efforts.
“However, when he requested assistance to get the stretcher to the ambulance, members of the Berlin Fire Company on scene refused to assist him in moving the stretcher to the ambulance,” the complaint reads. “Tyndall was able to get the patient to the ambulance by bag breathing the patient with one hand and pushing the stretcher with the other.”
According to the complaint, even after Tyndall loaded the patient into the ambulance, BFC members on hand allegedly refused to drive the ambulance to the hospital. Ultimately, a Berlin Police officer on scene drove the ambulance to the hospital.
An investigation into the incident conducted by the Maryland Institute for Emergency Medical Services Systems (MIEMSS) revealed no wrongdoing on the part of the BFC in the handling of the incident, although the investigator in the case did warn the “underlying tensions between the company and the town of Berlin are a cause for concern.”
Attorney Joe Moore, who represents the BFC, did not return calls for comment.