‘Firefighter’s Rule’ Bars Injured Officer’s Lawsuit

Written on 05/13/2022
Will Aitchison

While on routine patrol duty on February 11, 2017, Kassondra Topper, a deputy with the Frederick County Sheriff’s Office, responded to the scene of a minor motor vehicle collision in Emmitsburg, Maryland. When Topper arrived at the scene, she learned that a vehicle operated by Lynwood Stride had struck another vehicle in the rear. Stride accepted responsibility for the accident, explaining to Topper that he had been in a hurry.

Because Stride’s vehicle was blocking another motorist from exiting a parking lot, Topper instructed Stride to move his vehicle forward. Stride returned to his vehicle, started it, and began revving the engine. Then, although Topper put her hands up and shouted at him not to move because the car directly in front of him had not yet pulled away, Stride suddenly moved forward and lost control.

To avoid colliding with the car still in front of him, Stride “jerked the wheel” to the left, towards Topper. He accidentally struck Topper with his vehicle, causing injury to her neck and left hand, arm, and shoulder. Topper later underwent shoulder surgery and was unable to return to work for several months.

Topper sued Stride’s estate (he had passed away since the accident), alleging a single count of negligence. A trial court dismissed her lawsuit, finding that the “Firefighter’s Rule” blocked her claims. The Maryland Court of Special Appeals recently upheld the dismissal of the lawsuit.

The Firefighter’s Rule, adopted by courts in many states, is a judge-made rule which generally precludes police officers and firefighters injured in the course of their duties from suing those whose negligence necessitated the public safety officers’ presence at the location where the injury occurred. In other words, these courts have found that the very nature of the police officer’s or fire­fighter’s occupation limits their ability to recover in tort for work-related injuries.

In Maryland, which has adopted the Firefighter’s Rule, “a firefighter’s or police officer’s occupation does not involve facing unlimited risks on behalf of the public.” The Firefighter’s Rule does not apply in Maryland when the firefighter or law enforcement officer sustains injuries after the initial period of anticipated occupational risk, or from dangers not reasonably foreseeable as part of that risk.

The Court in Topper’s case did not believe any of the exceptions to the Firefighter’s Rule applied, and found the Rule barred her lawsuit: “Sustaining injury after directing the driver of a car damaged during a motor vehicle collision – which was blocking other vehicles from accessing the public road – to move his vehicle falls squarely within the range of hazards that police officers are expected to confront in the course of their duties on behalf of the public.

“The possibility of injury from the movement of the vehicle involved in the initial accident away from the lanes of travel was reasonably foreseeable as part of Topper’s occupational risk in investigating a motor vehicle collision. We conclude that the Firefighter’s Rule applies to bar Topper’s negligence claim. The trial court was therefore correct in granting Thomas’s motion for summary judgment.”

Topper v. Thomas, 2022 WL 38424 (Md. Spec. App. 2022).

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