Application of the Fireman’s Rule as an Exception to Tort Liability in Claims Brought by Public Servants
By: Shea Feagin
It is unquestioned that the Fireman’s Rule, grounded in public policy, is applicable in Georgia. The rule provides that “a public safety employee cannot recover for injuries caused by the very negligence that initially required his presence in an official capacity and subjected the public safety employee to harm.” Bycom Corp. v. White, 187 Ga. App. 759 (1988). Essentially, the Fireman’s Rule states that a “fireman incurs the risks inherent in the situation when he undertakes an off-premises emergency call in his official capacity.” Id. at 760.
This public policy is based, first, in the assumption of risk doctrine.
[I]t is the nature of the job undertaken for the employee to be subjected to risks of injury created by people he or she is called upon to serve. By accepting that job the employee assumes a general or primary risk of injury.…The justification for imposing this general or primary risk is that the employee is paid to encounter it and trained to cope with it.
Gaither v. Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority, 235 Ga. App. 603, 605 (1998).
Second, it would overwhelm the courts to have a lawsuit for each incident where a first responder is injured during their official duties responding to inevitable, albeit negligently-created, occurrences. Courts have found that citizens should be encouraged to rely on and call for public employees who have been specifically trained and are paid for these issues without fear of having to defend themselves from a lawsuit.
The Fireman’s Rule has been “broadly construed to cover tortfeasors other than those whose acts prompted the presence of the fireman at the place of the injury.…” Martin v. Gaither, 219 Ga. App. 646, 650 (1995). However, there are some limitations on the Fireman’s Rule. For example, while public safety officers are barred from bringing a claim for bodily injuries caused by the negligence that required his presence, a subsequent or extrinsic act of negligence or acts other than those necessitating the public safety officer’s presence, are actionable in a tort. This is most clearly outlined in Lewis v. Champion, 275 Ga. App. 496 (2005), where a police officer was dispatched to a restaurant to assist a fire marshal. Upon arrival, a restaurant employee requested the officer’s assistance in moving a large grill, during which the officer injured his hand. The court of appeals found the Firemen’s Rule did not apply and that the officer could recover from the employee because any negligence on the employee’s part while moving the grill was subsequent and extrinsic to the officer’s purpose of responding to the scene to assist the fire marshal.
While extrinsic or subsequent acts bar recovery, the recovery is still allowed if the “extrinsic” act is what caused the issue in the first place. In Watson Used Cars, LLC v. Kirkland, 343 Ga. App. 113 (2017), the plaintiff, a deputy sheriff, was called out to deal with a car accident that occurred outside of Watson Used Cars. Earlier in the day, an employee of Watson Used Cars mowed the lawn and accidently blew grass clippings onto the road which became wet when it rained. Id. A vehicle drove over the clippings, lost control and spun into a ditch. Id. When the deputy sheriff arrived, he drove over the same grass clippings and lost control of his vehicle as well, driving into a tree and sustaining serious injuries. Id. In his lawsuit, the deputy argued it was not the grass clippings that necessitated his presence but rather the initial driver’s need for help following his accident and that the grass clippings were extrinsic to his presence. Id. at 114. The trial court agreed and held that the grass clippings created an extrinsic act. However, the Georgia Court of Appeals disagreed and held the specific negligence (blowing the grass clippings) that caused the first incident is what caused the second incident and, as such, the plaintiff’s recovery was barred by the Fireman’s Rule.
Georgia courts created the following inquiry to determine the applicability of the Fireman’s Rule: “whether the negligently created risk which resulted in the . . . injury was the very reason for [the public safety officer’s] presence on the scene in his professional capacity. If the answer is yes, then recovery is barred.” Watson Used Cars, 343 Ga. App. at 114. Since its introduction, Georgia Courts have further broadened the Fireman’s Rule to specifically include not only firemen, but police officers (Martin) and emergency medical technicians (Kapherr v. MFG Chemical, Inc., 277 Ga. App. 112 (2005)). However, while the Fireman’s Rule bars recovery in a case where the initiating act was caused by negligence, it does not bar recovery where the act was caused willfully, wantonly and with the intent to cause injury. While claims brought by public service officers should be looked at through the lens of the Fireman’s Rule to determine if recovery is barred, investigation is needed to determine the cause of the injurious act, whether it was willful and wanton, if it was a subsequent or extrinsic act and if recovery is in fact barred.
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