Jury deciding firefighters’ case for free speech

Two ex-members of Front Royal volunteers suing former company

By Joe Beck

HARRISONBURG — A federal jury began deliberations Thursday in a lawsuit filed by two former members of the Front Royal Volunteer Fire Department who accuse the department and its former board president of defaming them and violating their rights of free speech.

The jury received the case after four days of testimony by witnesses from both sides that gave a glimpse into a fire company beset with internal strife.

The opposing sides clashed over who was to blame for what Larry Oliver, chief of the fire company, described as the worst infighting he has seen in his career.

Fire departments have always had cliques and always will, Oliver testified, “but certainly there was more division than I remember in the 35 years I’ve been there.”

Oliver and other witnesses who testified for the defense Thursday portrayed the plaintiffs, Philip A. Charles and David M. Ellinger, as polarizing malcontents determined to get their way while sowing mistrust and bitterness throughout the department.

Charles was banished as a member of the department and Ellinger was suspended in 2013. They contend the department retaliated against them for stirring up controversy on issues involving an aging fire truck and the distribution of funds from ambulance fees among Warren County fire departments.

Timothy Bosson, who represented Charles and Ellinger, said his clients were principled men trying to do right in a rigid, dictatorial environment. In closing arguments, Bosson described former board of directors President David Santmyers as the instigator of much of the turmoil.

“Mr. Santmyers is a bully, ladies and gentlemen,” Bosson told the jury in his closing arguments.

Bosson said testimony from Oliver revealed a “tidbit” that called into question the truthfulness of the entire defense.

The department decided to sell off the fire truck after costs for repair and rehabilitation were deemed too high. Ellinger and Charles objected to the decision. Oliver testified that Ellinger was one of two people chosen to help sell off the engine, despite Ellinger’s vehement opposition to the sale.

Bosson contended that Oliver’s testimony showed that Ellinger was not the incorrigible troublemaker that the defense claimed him to be.

“When you hear something like that, you know the department is lying to you,” Bosson said of Oliver’s testimony.

The jury’s verdict may not be the last word on the case. U.S. District Judge Michael F. Urbanski said earlier in the day that he planned to issue a written ruling on several First Amendment issues raised by the case.

Urbanski said the jury’s role is to decide several facts in the case, including whether Ellinger and Charles were acting as private citizens speaking out on matters of legitimate public concern. The jury must also decide whether the department suspended Ellinger and banished Charles as a result of their protests against the fate of the fire truck and other departmental actions, Urbanski said.

Urbanski said public employees such as firefighters have a right to free speech, but only when they are acting in the role of private citizens, not as representatives or members of a fire department.

Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or jbeck@nvdaily.com