The Demise of the Fireman’s Rule and the Impact on Police Officers, Firefighters, and First Responders Injured by Negligent Third Parties in the Line of Duty
At one time in Minnesota, a legal doctrine known as the “Fireman’s Rule” prevented police officers, firefighters, first responders, and other “professional rescuers” from bringing personal injury suits against negligent third parties when injured in the line of duty. The Minnesota Legislature eventually abolished the Fireman’s Rule by statute, granting these Minnesotans who risk their lives in the course of their employment civil recourse against negligent parties.
The Fireman’s Rule and the Common Law
The “Fireman’s Rule” is a common law doctrine that prevented firefighters, police officers, or “professional rescuers” from bringing suit against negligent parties if he or she sustained an injury during the course of his or her professional duties. Courts justified this harsh ban under the theory that firefighters and police officers assumed all the risks inherent in their professions and therefore could not bring tort actions against negligent parties responsible for their injuries.
Assumption of Risk
“Assumption of risk” is a legal concept used to evaluate fault in negligence cases. Assumption of risk can be used as an affirmative defense by an otherwise negligent party to avoid liability. The tortfeasor, or negligent party, must demonstrate that the injured party voluntarily and knowingly assumed the risks inherent to the dangerous activity that the injured party was performing at the time of injury. Minnesota law divides assumption of the risk into two types: primary and secondary.
Primary assumption of risk completely bans a plaintiff from recovering under the theory that because the injured party voluntarily and knowingly assumed the risks inherent to the dangerous activity that the tortfeasor did not owe a duty of care to the injured party in the first place. Courts almost exclusively limit the application of primary assumption of risk to cases where plaintiffs are injured while playing sports or are attending sporting events.
Secondary assumption of risk acknowledges that while the defendant owed a duty of care to the plaintiff, the plaintiff is partially at fault because to some degree the injured party voluntarily and knowingly assumed the risks inherent to the dangerous activity. Secondary assumption of risk functions as a form of comparative fault and thus apportions fault between the parties. See Schneider ex rel. Schneider v. Erickson, 654 N.W.2d 144, 148 (Minn. Ct. App. 2002).
Because courts reasoned that as a matter of law firefighters and police officers assumed all the risks associated with their professions, firefighters and police officers could not bring negligence claims against the third party who caused their injuries. Although a third party may have been responsible for causing a police officer or firefighter’s injury, the third party did not owe a duty of care to professional rescuers and therefore could not be negligent.
For example, if a firefighter fell through a hole in the floor of a house, under the Fireman’s Rule, the firefighter could not sue the landowner. But, another person who fell through the same hole may sue the landowner because he or she did not assume the risk in the hole on the floor. Under the law, landowners do not owe a duty of care to firefighters to keep the premises in reasonably safe conditions in the same way a landowner would owe a duty of care to other entrants on his or her property. In other words, an injured party’s status as a firefighter negated the duty of care a landowner would normally owe to an entrant. See Hamilton v. Minneapolis Desk Mfg. Co., 80 N.W. 693 (Minn. 1899); Mulcrone v. Wagner, 4 N.W.2d 97 (Minn. 1942).
Exceptions to the Fireman’s Rule
Over time Minnesota courts began to carve out exceptions to this harsh rule. The law became that firefighters and police officers do not assume the “extraordinary risk of hidden perils of which they might easily be warned.” See Shypulski v. Waldorf Paper Products Co. 232 Minn. 394, 402 (1951). Courts eventually broadened the exception even further, holding that firefighters and police officers did not assume the hidden or unanticipated risks. See Armstrong v. Mailand, 284 N.W.2d 343 (Minn. 1979); Kaiser v. Northern States Power Co. 353 N.W. 2d 899, 904 (1984).
Minnesota Statute § 604.06
Finally the Minnesota Legislature abolished the “Fireman’s Rule, “the fireman’s rule shall not operate to deny any peace officer, as defined in section 624.84, subdivision 1, clause (c), or public safety officer, as defined in section 299A.41, subdivision 4, a recovery in any action at law or authorized by statute.” Minn. Stat. § 604.06. Thus, while secondary assumption of risk issues may apply in cases where “professional rescuers” are injured by third-parties in the line of duty, police officers, firefighters, and first responders are not barred from bringing tort claims as a matter of law.
The Workers’ Compensation Act and Minnesota Statute § 604.06
Minnesota Statute § 604.06 allows injured police officers, firefighters, and first responders to more fully recover damages from personal injuries sustained while on duty. While work comp benefits may have compensated these public employees before the enactment of the statute, workers’ compensation benefits do not include pain and suffering and are much more limited than personal injury claims. Thus, Minnesota Statute § 604.06 allows injured firefighters, police officers, and first responders to recover much more of their financial losses as a result of their injuries. Moreover, the public employer’s work comp insurance carrier pays an employee’s work comp benefits. Many cities and public entities are self-insured for the purposes of workers’ compensation. The negligent parties should be responsible for compensating injured parties, not the public. In third-party claims the work comp carrier has a subrogation interest in the civil suit and may recoup a percentage of the monies they have paid to the injured party out of the civil award or settlement.
Minnesota Statute § 604.06 is an exception to the norm across the county. In other jurisdictions various forms of the Fireman’s Rule are still in effect, which actively prevents first responders from bringing suit against negligence parties because they were injured in the line of duty. Some states have even codified the Fireman’s Rule rather than abolishing it.
At Meuser Law Office, P.A. we regularly represent injured rescue workers and first responders who are injured in the line of duty. In 2013, we successfully defeated a motion for summary judgment on the issue that firefighters injured in the line of duty were barred from bringing a claim for damages arising out of house fire against negligent homeowners. The defense argued that our clients assumed all the risks associated with firefighting. We successfully recovered monies for our clients from the personal injury suit, work comp benefits, and PERA duty disability benefits. If you are a Minnesota police officer, firefighter, or first responder injured in the line of duty you should speak with an attorney familiar with the nuances of representing clients with numerous claims in personal injury, work comp, and PERA duty disability. Call Meuser Law Office, P.A. at 877-746-5680 for a free consultation.