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Severely injured St. Louis County firefighter gets $1M settlement following 13-year legal battle with department

Cindy Schuenke was severely burned in a house fire in Vinita Terrace in 2006. The Community Fire Protection District fired her three years after the injury.
Credit: KSDK

ST. LOUIS COUNTY, Mo. — After a 13-year legal battle, the Community Fire Protection District has settled a lawsuit for $1 million with a firefighter it fired after she was severely injured in the line of duty.

5 On Your Side has obtained a copy of the settlement agreement between the Community Fire Protection District in St. Louis County and Cindy Schuenke.

It also requires the district to return Schuenke’s helmet to her.

The agreement also includes a non-disparagement provision, which requires both parties to include the following statement about the settlement: “The parties have reached an amicable and wholly voluntary mutual agreement on the resolution of all claims and are satisfied with the terms of the agreement.”

Schuenke’s attorney, J.C. Pleban, commented on Schuenke’s behalf to 5 On Your Side Thursday.

“Cindy was a dedicated firefighter who was injured in the line of duty, and at this point Cindy is happy with the result and happy this matter is finally concluded,” Pleban said. “It’s been a long road to this point and we’re happy the parties worked together to get it done and for Cindy to close this chapter.”

Community Fire Protection District attorney Neil Bruntrager said the district is “pleased,” with the outcome.

“We worked very hard to resolve this amicably and we’re satisfied with the outcome,” he said. “She was injured in the line of duty, there is no question about that, and it has always been our intent to take care of her.

“We believed disability policies did take care of her, she had a differing view. We’ve now worked to an end that brings all of that together and we wish her the best going forward.”

Schuenke rushed into a burning house in Vinita Terrace in 2006 trying to help save a 76-year-old.

When the floor of the house collapsed underneath her, she was severely burned and injured, including significant injuries to her hands.

Three years later, she was terminated by the Community Fire Protection District because she could no longer perform her duties as a firefighter.

Her attorney argued the union contract at the time of her injury promised firefighters injured on the job would be paid until they could work again.

In November 2013, a judge ruled that Schuenke didn't get a fair hearing with the district and ordered it to pay her potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars in back wages and benefits.

"I haven't smiled and been this happy in a long time," Schuenke told 5 On Your Side during an interview in 2013.

She said her medical bills outpaced her disability checks by so much that she was in danger of losing her home. She had more than 100 surgeries following the fire.

She also wanted to return to work.

Through the years, several judges ordered the fire district to pay Schuenke back pay. The fire district, which serves St. Ann, Overland and Charlack and parts of north St. Louis County, appealed each time.

“This is 13 years of litigation, but it resolves everything,” Bruntrager said. “From our perspective, she’s taken care of going forward for her medical needs and we’re glad this is resolved in an amicable fashion.”

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