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firefighters rule

Kemal Yazar’s wife called police out of concern for her husband, who had begun behaving erratically and speaking delusionally. Following a struggle of some sort, police shot the unarmed father of three to death. Now one of the deputies at the scene, “who according to an investigator’s report, suffered ‘superficial wounds’ during the incident” (though he now reports more serious injuries), has sued the family, accusing them of “negligence and recklessness” for not warning emergency operators that Mr. Yazar might be a serious threat. “Oddly, the deputy didn’t sue Kemal’s wife, who placed the call, but her mother, Carmina Figueroa, whose name was on the home insurance policy.” As we noted in an item last year, also from Texas: “Under the ‘firefighter’s rule,’ which has eroded in some jurisdictions in recent years, emergency rescuers generally cannot sue private parties whose negligence is allegedly to blame for the hazards to which they are responding.” [Lisa Falkenburg, Houston Chronicle]


In Harris County, Tex., sheriff’s deputy Brady Pullen responded to a 911 call placed by Camina Figueroa from her Katy, Tex. home. While on the call, Pullen was attacked and injured by a man apparently high on illegal drugs. Now Pullen is suing Figueroa, claiming she “failed to adequately warn 9-1-1 of the dangerous situation he was walking into.” [KRTK] Under the “firefighter’s rule,” which has eroded in some jurisdictions in recent years, emergency rescuers generally cannot sue private parties whose negligence is allegedly to blame for the hazards to which they are responding.

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Thetford, Norfolk, U.K.: “A man who dialled 999 fearing a burglary at his petrol station is being sued by the policewoman who answered the call because she fell on the premises.” The officer, Kelly Jones, claims that Steve Jones did not adequately light the gas station or take adequate care for her safety in other ways. [SkyNews, BBC] On the chipping away on this side of the Atlantic of the historic “firefighter’s rule,” which has kept rescuers from suing private parties over injuries sustained in the course of their rescues, see our tag on the subject as well as individual posts (cops sue schizophrenic gunman’s mother; Florida cop sues family over slip-fall after rescuing baby.)

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Nine firefighters died in a blaze at a Charleston, S.C., furniture store in 2007. Now four other firefighters who were on the scene that night, along with two of their wives, have filed a lawsuit claiming emotional distress and depression. They have chosen to sue “the Sofa Super Store, its owners and several furniture manufacturers,” the latter on the theory that their wares should have been made of less combustible materials. [Charleston City Paper, with links to complaints, via Sheila Scheuerman, TortsProf] On the erosion of the old “firefighters’ rule” which prevented rescuers from suing over injuries sustained in the course of their rescues, see our tag on the subject. On the development of lawsuits attributing liability after fires to whole groups of makers of furniture and other furnishings on the ground that they furnished fuel for the conflagration, see this retrospective (scroll) on the Beverly Hills Supper Club fire of 1977, and, relatedly, our posts on the “Great White” Rhode Island concert fire.


Albuquerque Journal, last month: “After deliberating for less than four hours, a Roswell jury decided that El Paso Natural Gas Co. is not liable for the emotional distress firefighters and emergency personnel suffered while responding to a pipeline explosion that killed 12 people, many of them children, in 2000.” Two years ago the New Mexico Supreme Court had allowed the suit to proceed, chipping away at the “firefighter’s rule” which traditionally barred recovery by rescuers against those who caused the accidents to which they were responding.

Boston Globe: “The families of two Boston firefighters killed in a West Roxbury restaurant fire and a third firefighter injured in the blaze will split $2.2 million to settle lawsuits they brought against the restaurant, its landlord, and a grease-cleaning company, according to a source involved in the agreement.” As we’ve mentioned in the past, the “firefighters’ rule”, a “doctrine that historically has barred lawsuits by public safety officers against those whose negligence has allegedly led to emergencies [...] has decayed considerably in recent years in some jurisdictions, and suits by firefighters, police, paramedics and other rescuers have multiplied.” Also of note: “when they died, [one of the two firefighters] had traces of cocaine in his blood, and [the other's] blood alcohol level was .27, three times the legal limit to drive in Massachusetts, according to two government officials who described the results to the Globe”. The firefighters’ union has thus far successfully blocked efforts to subject its members to drug and alcohol testing.


August 29 roundup

by Walter Olson on August 29, 2008

  • One for your “firefighter’s rule” file: firefighter perishes in blaze, his widow sues security alarm company [SF Chron, San Pablo, Calif.]
  • And another: Nassau County, N.Y. cop injured by drunk driver while on duty is suing the county over Long Island Expressway design and signage [Newsday; Kenneth Baribault]
  • Stop fighting over the $60 million in fees, judge tells feuding lawyers, your lawsuit has been over for four years now [Legal Intelligencer, corrugated paper antitrust class action]
  • Public-health prof: red-light cameras “don’t work” and instead “increase crashes and injuries as drivers attempt to abruptly stop” [Bruce Schneier via Instapundit]
  • Criminal prosecution of political attack ads? Time to rethink campaign finance law [Bainbridge]
  • Teenagers send each other racy cellphone videos, and then their legal nightmare begins [Des Moines Register]
  • Sounds interesting but haven’t seen a copy: “How To Get Sued: An Instructional Guide” by well-known blawger J. Craig Williams [Giacalone, Ambrogi]
  • Mississippi AG Hood goes after MillerCoors over caffeinated alcohol drinks, but Anheuser-Busch hired Mike Moore and sprang big for DAGA, hmmm [Alan Lange, YallPolitics]

Last year in Shingle Springs, Calif., a schizophrenic 34-year-old named Eddie Mies gunned down his father and then engaged in a shootout with sheriff’s deputies which resulted in his own death and the wounding of three deputies. Now two of the deputies have sued Karen Mies, mother of the slain gunman and widow of his slain father, as well as her late husband’s estate and surviving son for a combined $8 million for “for emotional distress, medical expenses, loss of earning capacity, and punitive damages.” They claim the family should have controlled Eddie better, and say the deputies “suffered anxiety and humiliation” in addition to their physical injuries.

Attorney Phillip Mastagni of Sacramento, “whose family law firm works for police unions across Northern California”, is representing the two deputies, Jon Yaws and Greg Murphy, in the suit filed in El Dorado County. Mastagni says he is confident that the suit will overcome the “firefighters’ rule”, a doctrine that historically has barred lawsuits by public safety officers against those whose negligence has allegedly led to emergencies. The rule has decayed considerably in recent years in some jurisdictions, and suits by firefighters, police, paramedics and other rescuers have multiplied.

The defendant, Mrs. Mies, a hospice nurse, had this to say:

“June 5 was a tragic day for me and my family, and it was a tragic day for the deputies who were injured,” Karen Mies said. “We were all victims that day. But this lawsuit is victimizing our family again. What do they want? My husband’s dead, my son’s dead. Do they want my house and my 10-year-old car?”

(Dorothy Korber, “Son battled officers; now mom fights suit”, Sacramento Bee, Aug. 10). Smallest Minority (Aug. 20) is particularly intrigued by allegations of “bunkers and tunnels” supposedly maintained by the younger Mies.

Public criticism that followed initial reports of the lawsuit doesn’t seem to have softened Yaws and Murphy any: per one later account ( Forums, scroll to update at end of first entry, source not identified) they’ve upped their demand to $38.4 million. What are said to be excerpts of other recent local coverage can be found on page 6 of the same extensive comments section. And the name of the third injured deputy, the one who did not sue, deserves to be recorded in this place as well: it is Melissa Meekma. More: Pro Libertate.


Three years ago we prematurely reported that sanity had (as of that point) prevailed in the New Mexico case where firefighters and emergency medical personnel, otherwise uninjured, were seeking to sue El Paso Natural Gas over the emotional trauma of witnessing the disaster scene after a 2000 pipeline explosion. Earlier this month, however, the New Mexico Supreme Court ruled the other way, poking a big hole in the “firefighters’ rule” which traditionally barred recovery by rescuers against those who cause accidents. Chief Justice Edward Chavez wrote that to throw out the emotional-distress suits would be to “reward reckless or intentional acts”. The suits now head to trial. (Stella Davis, “Responders can sue in pipeline explosion”, Carlsbad Current Argus, Dec. 5).


December 10 roundup

by Walter Olson on December 10, 2007


“A police officer has sued the family of a 1-year-old boy who nearly drowned because she slipped and injured a knee responding to their 9-1-1 rescue call.” Andrea Eichhorn, a police sergeant in Casselberry, Florida, responded to the pool accident, and now “claims the boy’s family left a puddle of water on the floor, causing her fall during the rescue efforts. She broke her knee and missed two months of work.” So she’s suing the Cosmillo family. “It’s a situation where the Cosmillos have caused these problems, brought them on themselves, then tried to play the victim,” says her attorney, David Heil. Joey Cosmillo, the infant in question, suffered severe brain damage and lives in a nursing home now. (Rene Stutzman, “Cop who fell on the job sues family of baby who almost drowned”, Orlando Sentinel, Oct. 10; AP/Florida Today, Oct. 10)(slightly reworded to clarify sequence of events).

Plus: commentary on the above (Mike Thomas, “Hello, 911? Send a cop — who won’t sue”, Orlando Sentinel, Oct. 11). And update: cop decides to withdraw suit after public outcry.


In 2001, Harry Ruiz, a municipal police officer in New Jersey, was called to a disturbance at a local ballroom, which had been rented by a nearby sports bar to televise some World Cup matches. By the time he responded, the altercation had moved onto the street outside the building. When he responded, he was assaulted by one of the patrons, and he received head and neck injuries which left him permanently disabled.

This, obviously, was the fault of the bar, as well as the owner of the ballroom. The claim? They failed to provide adequate security. To recap: a trained police officer responds to reports of violence, gets injured, and sues the owner of the premises on the theory that they should have had security guards at the site to protect him from the people he had come to arrest!

Traditionally, the Firefighters Rule meant that police and firefighters were not allowed to sue for injuries they incurred while doing their job, in part based on the theory that this was the risk they were paid to take. But this week, the New Jersey Supreme Court held that Ruiz could proceed with his lawsuit. Although the state Supreme Court here is generally considered the most activist in the country, it’s the state legislature at fault in this case. The court was simply straightforwardly interpreting the words of the 1994 statute which abolished the Firefighters Rule in New Jersey; a copy of the court opinion is here.

So, be careful when you call the police or fire department for help; you might find yourself being sued by the people who were supposed to be assisting you.

Walter previously covered an even more outrageous case involving this law: Nov. 2006.


The traditional “firefighter’s rule” holds “that firefighters, police and rescue personnel accept an inherent risk of injury or even death in their jobs and generally cannot sue those they’re hired to protect. Their recourse is worker’s compensation claims, according to the rule. But lobbying by powerful unions and court decisions have led some states to limit the rule’s scope or rescind it altogether.” I’m quoted in the article criticizing recent moves away from the rule. “New Jersey is one of 11 states that allow police officers, firefighters and rescue personnel to file civil lawsuits when they’re injured through the negligence of individuals or entities.” (Tim Zatzariny Jr., “Police officers sue over injuries on job”, Camden (N.J.) Courier-Post, Aug. 30). For more, see Sept. 30, 2003; Apr. 1 and Jul. 16, 2004.

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Since Florida’s repeal in 1990 of a little-known doctrine in state law known as the “fireman’s rule”, police officers and firefighters injured while responding to calls have been free to sue private parties for damages. “In the past month, a Jupiter motorcycle officer and a Palm Beach County sheriff’s deputy have sued people who called for help. In both cases, the officers blamed their injuries on the negligence of people they were dispatched to protect. Earlier this year, officers in Sunrise and Plantation filed similar suits after suffering serious injuries.” Although the fireman’s rule still exists in most states, it’s “being slowly eradicated state-by-state” according to one observer; in Florida, lobbying by a police union helped ensure its demise. And although the Florida police union claims it only wanted to open the gates for suits over gross negligence and the like, suits have become a growth area and often name deep-pocket bystanders. (Bill Douthat, Palm Beach Post, Sept. 30).