Odenton fire lawsuit is settled

Ex-volunteers get $175,000, plus $146,000 in legal fees in abuse case

December 20, 2009|By Andrea F. Siegel

A lawsuit alleging that the ex-president of the Odenton Volunteer Fire Company sexually abused two former volunteers when they were teenage recruits and that their complaints went unheeded has ended in a six-figure settlement.

"In the world of public entities, it is particularly significant settlement," said Joyce E. Smithey, attorney for the men, who were unnamed in the lawsuit against the fire company and Anne Arundel County.

The settlement, reached in the spring, plus a recent end to a dispute over legal fees, wraps up a lawsuit filed in January 2008 based on allegations of sexual wrongdoing that one accuser said began in 2003, when he was 19, and the other said started in 2004, when he was 16.

The lawsuit was a significant factor in the county's decision not to insure volunteer companies for anything beyond fire and rescue operation as of last July 1. "The whole thing about being an insurer is to have some say over how to limit the risk," said Anne Arundel County Attorney Jonathan Hodgson.

The fire company and county will pay the men a total of about $175,000, plus $146,000 in legal and other fees, from the county's self-insurance fund. Neither the county nor the volunteer company admitted wrongdoing.

Lawsuit payouts for the county are capped at $200,000, Hodgson said. But that limit does not apply to the volunteer companies.

Speaking at Smithey's office, she and the two men, identified in the suit as John Doe No.1 and John Doe No. 2 and now in their 20s, advocated for more county oversight of volunteer companies.

One of the accusers said he thought it was appropriate for the liability for volunteers' behavior to fall on the volunteer companies: "If they had thought this was going to cost them almost $200,000 and legal bills, maybe this would not have happened."

The Baltimore Sun does not identify accusers in sexual abuse cases.

When the county decided in November not to appeal the legal fees ordered by U.S. District Judge Richard D. Bennett in Baltimore, the book was closed on the lawsuit.

County officials declined to discuss the allegations in the lawsuit. Troy Odendhal, president of the Odenton Volunteer Fire Company, did not respond to telephone and e-mail requests for an interview.

County fire and rescue services are a network of paid employees and volunteers. Volunteers' roles can include anything from skilled emergency duties to raising money, handling administrative tasks and buying equipment. The volunteer groups tend to have deep community roots, and some participants join as teens.

The volunteer companies are insured through the Anne Arundel County Volunteer Firefighters Association for things unrelated to fire and rescue operations, said Robert D. Couchenour, the group's president. He said the Odenton case had no other effect on volunteer companies.

In their lawsuit, the men said it seemed nothing came of their complaints about former fire company president Louis D'Camera other than retaliation against them.

"There is probably not an hour that goes by that I haven't had a thought about this issue," said one of the men, now 21, who said the abuse occurred when he was 16.

He said he quit high school and later earned a GED. He withdrew socially. His marriage at 20 lasted but a short time. He had wanted to be a firefighter since fifth grade, but that dream is gone.

"That's what I wanted to do. I had no backup plan," he said.

The other man, now age 25, said the experience "certainly has impacted my ability to get close to some people."

He said he was branded as a troublemaker because of his allegations. In the lawsuit, he alleged that he lost a job prospect because fire company volunteers defamed him. He now works in the information technology field.

"Having been through what I have been through, it energizes me to be successful in my career," he said.

The younger man said he thinks the county's reliance on volunteers and money they raise is problematic. "It's almost like the county is held hostage because the company owns the firehouse and the equipment," he said.

The accusations centered on the highly decorated D'Camera in his role as president of the Odenton volunteers, and the men's allegation that the volunteers had closed ranks to shield him. D'Camera also was employed as a civilian quartermaster in the county Fire Department.

In 1998, D'Camera was charged with a third-degree sex offense against an Odenton volunteer and found not guilty.

The lawsuit alleged that D'Camera's behavior was well-known at the station and at one time included ordering recruits to run around the firehouse naked.

On June 24, 2005, Baltimore police charged D'Camera with indecent exposure, alleging that they saw him perform a sex act with an 18-year-old man. About three weeks later, prompted largely by his arrest, the two young volunteers took allegations of repeated sexual assaults by D'Camera to police. He killed himself about a week later.

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