If you’ve ever covered your ears as a shrieking fire truck passed, you know the loud sirens can make your ears ring long after it’s out of view. More than two dozen New Jersey firefighters have filed a lawsuit claiming that repeated, constant exposure to fire engine sirens caused them irreversible hearing loss.
The Newark product liability lawsuit was filed on behalf of 34 current or former firefighters in Elizabeth, Linden, Bayonne, Union, Ridgewood, Kearny, Cranford and West New York. The suit names five truck manufacturers (American LaFrance LLC, Kovatch Mobile Equipments Corp., Mack Trucks Inc., Pierce Manufacturing Inc., and Seagrave Fire Apparatus LLC), along with Federal Signal Corp., the company that manufactured the fire sirens. (The suit had originally been brought in the New Jersey Superior Court but was removed to federal court in Newark on December 4, 2015.)
But sirens are supposed to be loud, right?
Each plaintiff has worked for the fire department for decades, resulting in countless hours of exposure in close proximity to the sirens. According to the suit, the sirens are too loud to be considered “safe” for ordinary use.
Under New Jersey law, companies, manufacturers, distributors and retailers of products (collectively hereafter referred to as “producers”) owe certain duties to the public related to products they make or sell. These duties require that each product must be reasonably fit, suitable, and safe for its intended or reasonably foreseeable uses. If a product doesn’t measure up to this standard and a person is injured as a result, the injured person may have a claim against one or more of the responsible parties. This is called “strict liability.”
Strict liability doesn’t require that the producers do anything negligent or intentionally wrong. The law assumes that the manufacturer knew (or should have known) that the product was potentially harmful. To support a claim for injures based on a theory of strict liability in New Jersey, an injured plaintiff typically must prove the following:
- The defect or danger was present in the product at the time it left the manufacturer’s hands, and
- the defect or danger was the immediate cause of the plaintiff’s injury.
Federal Signal Corp. manufactured, sold, marketed, distributed, and designed the Q-Siren for use in pump trucks, ladder trucks, paramedic vehicles, hook and ladders, and other vehicles used by the fire departments. The volume of the Q-siren is about 120 decibels (dB): roughly equivalent to the volume of a jet engine taking off. Normal speech registers about 60dB, for comparison; sustained exposure to levels above 90-95 dB is likely to result in hearing loss. OSHA work safety regulations recommend no more than 15 minutes’ exposure per day to decibel levels of 115 and above, while NIOSH cautions that no exposure is safe to levels over 112 dB.
Because of this, the suit alleges that Federal Signal Corp. knew or should have known the sirens were "inherently dangerous" to a human's hearing but failed to develop a safe product.
Loud sirens, no protection
Most industries that involve sustained loud volumes in the workplace require employees to wear personal ear protection or earplugs. The plaintiff firefighters, however, contend that wearing earplugs could hinder their ability to communicate while responding to fires. Although New Jersey has no prohibition on wearing earphones or earplugs while driving, many other states have banned or restricted drivers from doing so because of safety concerns.
Instead, the lawsuit contends that the fire truck manufacturers should have, but did not, test and develop crew cabs or install after-market modifications to the vehicles that would dampen the interior noise or shield the sound from the sirens, and placement and mounting of the sirens on the apparatus failed to minimize the excess sound. These protections could have allowed for safe sound levels for the firefighters while they were responding to calls in siren-equipped vehicles. Without any such modifications, with no protection from the “inherently dangerous” sirens, the suit alleges that the manufacturers knew or should have known that their vehicles were also “inherently dangerous.”
The lawsuit alleges the firefighters "have suffered irreversible hearing loss and a permanent decrease of their hearing" making them unable "to enjoy life's pleasures." Sustained levels of exposure to noises at that level can result in permanent tinnitus (ringing in the ears) and/or hearing loss. Noise-induced hearing loss limits the ability to hear high frequency sounds and understand speech and can seriously impair one’s ability to communicate.
OSHA has recognized noise-related hearing loss as one of the most prevalent occupational health concerns in the United States for more than 25 years. Since 2004, the Bureau of Labor Statistics has reported that nearly 125,000 workers have suffered significant, permanent hearing loss. Since 1999, thousands of claims have been brought against Fire Signal for hearing loss, many of which went in the company's favor, but in 2011, the siren manufacturer agreed to a $3.8 million settlement with 1,125 claimants.
Each firefighter is seeking $150,000 in damages as well as court costs associated with the suit.
If you’ve suffered hearing loss as the result of a workplace hazard or have been otherwise injured at work, call the experienced attorneys at the Mark Law Firm. We can discuss whether a product liability lawsuit, a New Jersey workers' compensation claim, or some other remedy would be most appropriate for your individual situation. Contact us today for a consultation with our Newark, Basking Ridge, or Oradell lawyers.
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