The “Fireman’s Rule” in Massachusetts

The “Fireman’s Rule” in Massachusetts. Recent tragic losses of heroic firefighters remind us of the dedicated service of our first responders and our community’s need to not only to honor them, but to protect them and their families as well. It is a fight we have been fighting for decades.

Believe it or not, most states deny these public servants and their families the right to obtain compensation from those who carelessly created the dangers to which they respond. This unjust edict, inaptly named the “Fireman’s Rule,” bars lawsuits by police officers, firefighters, and other professional rescuers (and their families) from seeking damages for injuries that occur in the course of their duties, even in cases of clear negligence or recklessness by responsible parties. It should be called the “Anti-Firefighter Rule.”

Try to figure out what social policy would be advanced by immunizing from liability persons and companies whose negligent, reckless or willful conduct creates an emergency situation resulting in harm to a responding police officer or firefighter? The application of the rule is harsh and its consequences are borne entirely by police officers, firefighters and their families, who arguably are most deserving of the support of the justice system when injured in the line of duty. Judges arguing against the rule have noted that “No other workers, public or private, whose employment compels them to work in dangerous locations or under dangerous conditions are thereby automatically barred from recovery against negligent, wanton or intentional third-party tortfeasors who inflict injuries upon them,” Lenthall v. Maxwell, 138 Cal. App. 3rd 716, 722, 188 Cal. Rptr. 260 (1982) (McClosky, J. dissenting); and that is “simplistic and patently unfair to these public servants.” Waggoner v. Troutman Oil Co., 894 S.W.2d 913, 916 (Ark. 1995) (Roaf, J., dissenting).

Thankfully, Massachusetts has rejected the Fireman’s Rule, and we are proud to have been the lawyers in the case that currently protects the rights of first-responders and their families. In the case of Hopkins v. Medeiros, 48 Mass. App. Ct. 600 (2000) in which we represented the Plaintiff, an injured Peabody Police Officer, the Court established two principles that are essential to fair and just treatment of our public servants:

First:  “The firefighter’s rule has no continuing vitality in Massachusetts.”

So injured police officers, firefighters and their families have the same rights and remedies as construction workers and workers in other dangerous occupations.

Second:  Massachusetts recognizes the rescue doctrine in that “rescuers are not, as matter of law, precluded from recovery because they voluntarily placed themselves in danger.”

The Court thus reaffirmed the rule called the Rescue Doctrine — “negligence which creates peril invites rescue and, should the rescuer be hurt in the process, the tortfeasor will be held liable not only to the primary victim, but to the rescuer as well.”

At Kenney & Conley, P.C., our professional role in these cases is to help victims and their families through sad and tragic circumstances.  When we work for these clients, and as we learn from the news of the loss of such heroes – most recently in Watertown and in Boston – our hearts go out to the families and brother/sister firefighters, and we reflect with pride on the work we have done that may help, if only a little.

J. Michael Conley