City will sue over Morse’s death

Late Watertown firefighter Peyton L.S. Morse’s turnout gear sits outside the city fire station on South Massey Street during a memorial ceremony in June. Watertown Daily Times

WATERTOWN — The city is preparing to file a lawsuit against the state in the death of city firefighter Peyton L.S. Morse, who died in March after having a medical emergency while training at the state fire academy in Montour Falls.

City Attorney Robert J. Slye said earlier this week that the lawsuit will involve monetary expenses incurred by the city as the result of the New York State Academy of Fire Science’s negligence in the young firefighter’s death.

The lawsuit will be filed with the state Court of Claims, the court that must hear the case because it will be against the state, Mr. Slye said.

The city took the first step by filing a Notice of Intention to File a Claim within the 90-day requirement, he said. The city will actually file the lawsuit in a few months under the Court of Claim’s time limitations for filing, he said.

Mr. Morse’s medical emergency occurred on March 3 while he was using a Self Contained Breathing Apparatus, SCBA, during training. It’s been determined that the breathing apparatus was in proper working order. His parents have insisted that he had excellent health.

Mr. Morse died in a Pennsylvania hospital nine days later.

Mr. Slye was astounded after learning last week an investigation by the Public Employee Safety and Health Bureau, PESH, found that the state fire academy did nothing wrong in what led to Mr. Morse’s death.

“It will make us work even harder,” he said about the city’s legal action.

Mr. Slye thinks that PESH, a state agency involved in protecting employees, should not have let the state fire academy off the hook.

He also was shocked that PESH had to be convinced by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to take on its investigation. PESH officials had initially told Watertown Fire Chief Matthew R. Timerman that the agency had not planned to conduct one.

A branch of the state attorney general’s office will defend the state in the matter, Mr. Slye said.

The city’s lawsuit will cover recouping about $178,000 in expenses incurred by the city from Mr. Morse’s medical emergency and death, Mr. Slye said. The city will be protecting city taxpayers, he explained.

The expenses include the firefighter’s funeral, medical bills and transport and employment insurance.

The city retained a private investigative firm, AMRIC Associates Ltd., Syracuse, to conduct its own investigation into what happened.

The city’s lawsuit will be separate from any that Morse’s family decides to file, he said. Mr. Slye has not talked to the family about their plans for legal action.

The firefighter’s family has filed a Notice of Intention to File a Claim within the 90-day requirement.

Chief Timerman said he also doesn’t know the status of any legal action that the family might take.

Chief Timerman and Mr. Morse’s parents, David and Stacy, have been critical of the way the fire academy handled training and how the death was being investigated by PESH. They believe Mr. Morse’s death could have been prevented. PESH is expected to release its report this week about its findings.

Their concerns prompted a Schuyler County prosecutor and state police higher ups to initiate an investigation by the Violent Crimes Unit with state police Troop E, based in Canandaigua. The unit investigates assaults, homicides and other serious crimes. A lone state police investigator had been handling the investigation until then.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, NIOSH, is also conducting an investigation to determine how to prevent similar situations in the future. The NIOSH report is expected to be completed in December.

Chief Timerman said he’s confident that the state police and NIOSH investigations will be completed correctly.

State Sen. Patricia A. Ritchie, R-Heuvelton, and Assemblyman Mark C. Walczyk, R-Watertown, have called for thorough investigations into what happened.

Fire department officials across the state have become increasingly concerned about the training recruits receive at the academy.

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Johnson Newspapers 7.1

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