Kudar Uday was relieved three years ago that the fire that started in the basement of his Staten Island home was not more serious.
A paint can had been placed too close to his basement furnace. Thankfully it didn’t ignite, and though there was smoke and some charring, the damage was minimal. Firefighters were called, but they were in and out of the house within 45 minutes, according to their report, and no repairs were needed.
“Just smoke conditions. There were no flames,” Uday said.
That’s why Uday was shocked three years later when a letter arrived in the mail telling him that one of the firefighters who had reported to his home that day was suing him.
The firefighter who filed the suit, Andrew Cannon, declined to comment for this story. His lawyer also declined to be interviewed, saying only that Cannon injured his shoulder in the fire.
But lawsuits like his aren't all that rare, the I-Team has learned. Lawyer Peter Gleason said he has represented about 40 firefighters in the tri-state area, all of whom blame property owners for an injury they got on the job.
“It only takes one injury to destroy a firefighter’s career,” said Gleason, of Manhattan. “Firefighters have to reasonably be able to protect themselves."
Years ago, homeowners were protected from such suits by something called the “Firefighters Rule,” which said firefighters assume a risk when they report to a fire, and cannot sue afterward. But that rule was abolished in the 1960s, when several Bronx landlords were charged with burning down their buildings to collect the insurance money.
"Firefighters were getting severely injured and in many cases dying,” Gleason said. “It was decided that there needed to be more avenues for retribution.”
But while the law was initially changed to discourage property owners from committing arson, in 1996 it changed again, making homeowners even more vulnerable to lawsuits. Now firefighters can sue homeowners saying that the fire started due to negligence, making many kinds of fires -- such as overloaded power supplies, candles next to curtains, and paint cans next to boilers -- possible fodder for claims.
Firefighter lawsuits against homeowners have settled for as much as $450,000, the I-Team learned, usually in cases where injuries were well-documented and damage was severe.
The FDNY and firefighters union would not discuss Cannon's record, nor disclose how many similar lawsuits have been filed.
Uday said his experience may make him more hesitant to reach for the phone the next time emergency strikes.
“You want some kind of help," Uday said. "But three years later, to be sued by the men you called to help... that’s not help."