In the last week of January Geoff Bichler, one of the attorneys representing Flagler County sheriff’s employees, made a proposal to the sheriff and the county, calling it “critical to any chance for the County and the Sheriff to put this dispute behind.”
The dispute is over 27 employees’ claims for workers’ compensation as they try to recoup medical and legal costs from issues related to what they say is a sick Sheriff’s Operations Center. The sheriff evacuated the center in Bunnell in June. The building is all but condemned for now, with county commissioners, the sheriff and employees strongly doubting it could ever be re-occupied.
Bichler’s proposal was this: The sheriff would agree to accept the workers’ compensation claims and provide benefits to the employees. The county would indemnify the sheriff. And the employees would agree not to sue the county.
“At the end of the day, the expense here is enormous, we’re offering them a way out,” Bichler said at the time.
The offer went nowhere.
On Feb. 12, Bichler mailed notice to Flagler County Sheriff Rick Staly of his intention to sue the agency for negligence on behalf of the employees. Such notices are required by law. Bichler said in January the county would be named in the suit as well. (In fact, he sent similar notices to the county in mid-August.)
“The nature of the complaint for negligence is that my client, while working for the Sheriff’s Operations Center,” Bichler wrote in a form letter reproduced for each employee’s notice, “was exposed to toxins in the workplace.” (Fuentes in fact worked at the Operations Center as a detective rather than for it.) “The Sheriff’s Office owed my client, its employee, a duty of care to provide a safe work environment which it breached by negligently failing to safely maintain and inspect the Operations Center. The Sheriff’s Office also failed to warn or adequately warn client of the danger of toxins in the Operations Center and failed to correct or adequately correct the unreasonably dangerous conditions caused by these toxins.”
Staly, as he’s indicated in the past, is not opposed to the lawsuit. To the contrary. He’s to be a defendant in the lawsuit, but he may as well be one of the plaintiffs’ (the employees’) chief witnesses.
“This litigation is no surprise to me and should be no surprise to anyone. I completely understand why affected employees have been advised to file a lawsuit by their attorney to protect their rights under Florida law,” Staly said in a statement issued by his agency this week. “The Sheriff’s Office employees were assigned to this building in
September 2015 by the former Sheriff and long before I became Sheriff. As Sheriff I am only a tenant in a building owned by the County. As soon as I was notified and saw credible evidence about the impact of this building on my employees’ health and well-being, I demanded the County evacuate everyone from it.”
The statement makes Staly’s position on his employees’ side–and therefore against his own insurance carrier’s–explicit: “The emerging evidence since our evacuation confirms this was the right decision for my employees. I am sure that the legal and worker’s compensation process will work to achieve a just resolution and I support my employees who work hard to serve our community every day. My focus continues to be two-fold. First, it is making sure affected employees receive the care and compassion they deserve. I will continue to do anything that I can to support our employees. My other priority is making sure our employees always have a safe and healthy work environment. The health, safety, and well-being of our employees is paramount and non-negotiable. To this end, I look forward to working with the County Commission to expeditiously resolve our building and space needs.”
“He is at odds with his workers comp carrier and that is going to come out in this litigation process,” Bichler said. “The sheriff is a defendant in this case.”
In late January, Bichler said his proposal had been a chance for “everybody taking a step back and stopping the madness on the litigation, stopping the expenditure of time and money and resources, litigating a case we don’t need to litigate right now. You can stop the bleeding, you can provide the medical care for the employees while you continue your investigation. Let’s find what’s wrong with the building.”
For now, that question has not been answered, as the result of several rounds of testing conducted late last year have yet to be revealed. But the pending lawsuit is one more complication in a quagmire immersing county government and the Sheriff’s Office, with no indication yet when the “crisis” (as the sheriff referred to it Thursday) will be resolved.