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July 25, 2011

The Firefighter Rule


The Firefighter Rule
Cibelli v Episcopal Diocese of New York, NYS Supreme Court, Justice Liebowitz, Not selected for publication in the Official Reports

In the Cibelli case, New York State Supreme Court Justice Liebowitz outlines the common law “firefighters rule” and the impact of recent amendments to the General Municipal Law on the application of the common law rule.

In this case a firefighter sued to recover for personal injuries suffered while fighting a fire at a Diocese church. Justice Liebowitz ruled:

1. Cibelli's action was barred by the “firefighter rule;” and

2. Cibelli failed to establish a prima facie case under General Municipal Law Section 205-a, dealing with injuries resulting from fire code and other statutory violations.

As to the “firefighters rule,” the court explained:

It is established law in this State that a firefighter injured in the line of duty is not entitled to recover for the injuries sustained on the theory of common law negligence. In other words, firefighters are barred from recovering damages for injuries resulting from the special risks inherent in the duties they are called to perform.

The rationale for this rule is that firefighters and police officers are trained and compensated to confront dangers and are therefore precluded from recovering damages for the very situations that create a need for their services. Further, “the firefighter rule precludes a police officer or firefighter from recovering in tort when the performance of his or her duties increased the risk of the injury happening, and did not merely furnish the occasion for the injury.”

Therefore, when firefighters act in furtherance of their duties, which expose them to a heightened risk of sustaining injury, he or she may not recover damages for common law negligence.

Turning to the recent amendments to the General Municipal Law [GML], Justice Liebowitz commented that GML 205-a allows firefighters or representatives of deceased firefighters to sue where an injury “occurs directly or indirectly as a result of any neglect ... or negligence of any person or persons in failing to comply with the requirements of any statutes, ordinances, [or] rules ...” during the discharge of his or her duty.

According to the ruling, in enacting GML 205-a the Legislature intended to protect firefighters from additional dangers resulting from fire prevention code violations and other statutory violations, without the application of the assumption of risk doctrine. The problem here, said Justice Liebowitz, is that Cibelli failed to establish any facts or offer any proof that the Diocese violated any sections of the code.

Finally, Justice Liebowitz rejected Cibelli's argument that he could sue pursuant to General Obligations Law [GOL] Section 11-106. GOL 11-106, said the court, applies only when the “injury is proximately caused by the neglect, willful omission, or intention, willful or culpable conduct of any person or entity other than that ... firefighter's employer or co-employee.” Again Justice Liebowitz decided that Cibelli failed to establish that the Diocese's action or inaction was a proximate cause of his injury.

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