Sunday, March 28, 2010
“Firefighters Rule” bars police official from suing his or her employer for injuries he or she suffered as a result of employer's alleged negligence
The parking lot of the New York City Police Headquarters in Manhattan is protected by a concrete barrier-gate that can be retracted into the ground to allow entry to the lot. If it is necessary to stop an entering vehicle, the gate can be raised, automatically and quickly, with enough force to lift a car off the ground.
The commanding officer of the New York City Police Commissioner's liaison unit, David Wadler, arrived at his place of work at Police Headquarters and displayed his credentials to one of the police officers guarding the parking lot. The barrier was lowered but then, accidentally, raised again while Wadler driving over it, lifting the vehicle some four feet into the air and Wadler was injured as a result.
Wadler sued, but the Court of Appeals, affirming lower court rulings, held that in this instance the "firefighter rule," which bars common-law negligence recovery by firefighters and police officers for injuries that result from risks associated with their employment, required the dismissal of his lawsuit notwithstanding the fact that he was injured by the negligent operation of a security device.*
The Court of Appeals explained that here the cause of the injury to Wadler, -- a high-security device protecting the police headquarters parking lot -- was plainly a risk "associated with the particular dangers inherent" in police work. Although “ordinary civilians” may encounter such devices, police officers, whose duties may include working in secure areas that are at risk of a terrorist attack, are far more likely to do so.
An act taken in furtherance of a specific police function - entry into a protected parking lot, which only Wadler's police credentials allowed him to enter - exposed him to the risk of this injury, said the court.
* In Zanghi v Niagara Frontier Transportation Commission, 85 NY2d 423. the Court of Appeals held that "[P]olice and firefighters may not recover in common-law negligence for line-of-duty injuries resulting from risks associated with the particular dangers inherent in that type of employment." Since 1996, the rule has been applicable only in actions against a "police officer's or firefighter's employer or co-employee" (General Obligations Law § 11-106). The decision also notes that whether a police officer is on duty or not is not dispositive; police officers often, by the nature of their jobs, face significant risks even when they are not technically at work.
Reprinted with permission New York Public Personnel Law
Mitchell H. Rubinstein