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'Fireman's rule' prevents officer from filing suit

December 15, 2009

The "fireman's rule" doesn't allow a professional emergency responder to file a claim for the negligence that creates the emergency to which he or she responds, the Indiana Supreme Court upheld today. As a result of its ruling, the high court unanimously ruled a police officer's complaint against an adult showclub must be dismissed.

In Babes Showclub, Jaba Inc., and James B. Altman v. Patrick and Lisa Lair, No. 49S05-0905-CV-214, the justices examined the 116-year-old rule originally established in Woodruff v. Bowen, 136 Ind. 431, 34 N.E. 1113 (1893). Patrick and Lisa Lair sued Babes Showclub and its owner after Patrick, an Indianapolis police officer, was injured by a drunk, underage patron while responding to a report of an unruly customer at the club. They alleged the club maintained a nuisance, was negligent in failing to provide adequate security, and violated dram shop laws.

Babes filed a motion to have the complaint dismissed for failure to state a claim, citing Indiana's fireman's rule. The trial court denied that, but certified it for interlocutory appeal. The Indiana Court of Appeals reversed, holding the fireman's rule prevented any recovery by Lair.

The justices took a look at past cases dealing with the fireman's rule, which continued to hold that a professional emergency responder couldn't sue unless a property owner failed to refrain from "positive wrongful acts." The high court in 1995 established an exception to the rule in Heck v. Robey, 659 N.E.2d 498, 500 (Ind. 1995), in which it held a paramedic wasn't barred from recovering for injuries he sustained as a result of acts happening after he arrived on the scene.

Previous caselaw viewed the fireman's rule as turning solely on premises liability, which isn't correct, wrote Justice Theodore Boehm. Heck didn't limit the rule to injuries sustained on the defendant's premises; the responder could recover because of the "positive wrongful acts" committed by Robey: Robey became violent and injured Heck after he responded to Robey's accident.

"In sum, previous Indiana cases are consistent in results, if not in reasoning," wrote the justice. "Each is consistent with the view that an emergency responder may not recover for the negligence that created the situation to which the responder responds, but the rule applies only to emergency responders, and does not bar recovery for negligence unrelated to the creation of the emergency."

Public policy is the basis for the rule, the justices agreed, and the fireman's rule is best understood as reflecting a policy determination that emergency responders shouldn't be able to sue for the negligence that created the emergency to which they respond to in their official capacity.

Lair's complaint alleged nothing suggesting that Babes was negligent in any aspect apart from the negligence that produced the emergency situation with the unruly patron. As a result, the complaint fails to state a claim against the club in the face of the fireman's rule, wrote Justice Boehm.

The case was remanded with instructions to dismiss the complaint for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.

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