A veteran firefighter who said he suffered a backlash after reporting that Los Angeles Fire Department personnel and members of the dive team were wrongfully destroying and discarding property bought with federal funds was awarded $2.75 million Wednesday.
A Los Angeles Superior Court jury deliberated for about a day before reaching its verdict in favor of Stephen Meiche, who testified he was ostracized by LAFD colleagues and subjected to differential treatment when he complained.
"I was being excluded from participation in the unit I helped build," the 57-year-old Encinitas resident said.
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Meiche also said he became concerned that others were questioning his fitness for the job.
"I truly believed that there were rumors floating around about my competence as a diver," Meiche testified.
He said he also worried whether his colleagues would assist him if something happened to him while diving in the ocean.
"My safety was compromised," Meiche said.
Deputy City Attorney Stacey Anthony said in her opening statement that both Meiche and his adversaries on the job believed diver safety was their top priority, but had different opinions concerning the best way to go about it.
"They have their own culture, their own way of doing things," Anthony added.
Meiche, who was assigned to Station 49, filed his suit in June 2016, alleging harassment, discrimination and retaliation. According to the complaint, he joined the LAFD in 1980 and later became a certified diver.
Meiche said he began complaining in March 2014 that some LAFD property purchased with Urban Areas Security Initiative funds, including diving dry suits, were being destroyed in violation of grant money rules and that records were "likely falsified" to cover up the destruction. He additionally alleged that some LAFD members were "abusing grant funds by falsifying hours worked on training."
Meiche also told jurors that a captain engaged in a dive at a depth beyond his certification, jeopardizing the plaintiff's instructor certification and exposing him to potential liability. Other divers could have been put in danger if the captain suddenly had problems and had to be rescued, Meiche testified.
Some LAFD members plagiarized or used copyrighted material to write training manuals while representing the writings as their own, Meiche alleged.
Meiche said that in retaliation, he was "thrown under the bus." He said he was marginalized, denied overtime, ostracized and harassed.
Meiche alleges the department refused to investigate his allegations but did look into claims made against him by other LAFD members, thus subjecting him to differential treatment.
Meiche grew up in Long Beach and graduated from Lakewood High School in 1978.