Firefighter’s Rule: Tort Claim Barred From An On-Duty Police Officer

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Read v. Keyfauver, 668 Ariz. Adv. Rep. 33 (App. Div. I, August 27, 2013) (J. Brown)

THE FIREFIGHTER'S RULE BARS A TORT CLAIM BY AN ON DUTY POLICE OFFICER INJURED WHILE RESCUING A CAR ACCIDENT VICTIM

Plaintiff, a law enforcement officer was injured while providing assistance to defendant who was trapped in her car after a rollover accident. The Arizona Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court's ruling that the Firefighter's rule bars the plaintiff's claim.

Plaintiff while on duty was writing a traffic citation when he observed defendant crash her vehicle. He ran to her assistance permanently injuring his knee while extracting her from her car. He then sued her claiming her negligent driving was the cause of his injury. He argued the firefighter's rule does not apply because he was under no duty to come to defendant's aid and was therefore a volunteer, that the public policy reason for the rule did not apply and that the question of assumption of the risk was a question only the jury could decide.

The court of appeals acknowledged that the "rescue doctrine" allows an injured rescuer to recover damages from the person whose negligence created the need for the rescue. However the "firefighter's rule" is an exception to this doctrine and holds a rescuer cannot recover while performing her duties as a professional firefighter. "The policy decision is that it would be too burdensome to charge all who carelessly cause or fail to prevent fires with the injuries suffered by the expert retained with public funds to deal with those inevitable, although negligently created, occurrences. . . the tort system is not the appropriate vehicle for compensating public safety employees for injuries sustained as a result of negligence that creates the very need for their employment."

There are three exceptions to the firefighter's rule: First, when the "independent negligence" of a third party causes the public safety professional's injury, the rule is inapplicable. Second, non-emergency situations and third, the rule is inapplicable to off-duty public safety professionals who voluntarily respond to an emergency. Plaintiff argues he was a volunteer because his duty was only to secure the scene of the accident and call for emergency medical help which he did. He argues the rescue was outside the scope of his employment. The court disagreed finding that because he was "on duty" and being paid to act as a professional law enforcement officer he was not a volunteer. The firefighter's rule does not turn on the specifics of job requirements and employment policies of the police or fire department.

Lastly the plaintiff argues that the firefighter's rule is nothing more than an aspect of the assumption of the risk doctrine which under Ariz. Const. art. 18, §5, must always be a question for the jury. The court ruled otherwise finding "the rule is based on

a principle of exclusion, limiting the scope of the tort system, rather than, as [plaintiff] suggests, a derivative of assumption of risk principles."

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