It has not been an easy few weeks for the autotort practitioner or motorists in Maryland. A few cases have come down from the appellate courts that have left a stinging sensation in their wake. The first is one that may not apply to too many people reading this blog, but is important for many of my firm’s clients. It was truly a disappointment in that I had been waiting for well over a year for the Maryland Court of Appeals to decide this case, as the decision would affect a different case I had pending. Now that we have the decision, I could have kept on waiting. In the recent case of White v. State of Maryland, the Court of Appeals had an opportunity to lessen the harshness of the common law Fireman’s Rule, but didn’t.
As a background, this firm represents a significant number of firefighters and police officers. The Fireman’s Rule, now the Firefighter’s Rule “is a common law rule that 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.” White. Basically, it is a rule that says if a firefighter or police officers come to your house, then they can’t sue you because they got injured.
The Court of Special Appeals initially heard the case and applied the rule rather strictly. The Court of Appeals then had the opportunity temper the Rule, however, the facts of White were not really conducive to good law. In White , a state trooper responded to an armed robbery call and initiated a high speed pursuit of the suspect. The problem was that the dispatcher made an error in that the crime was only a simple theft or even shoplifting, instead of the felony of armed robbery. During the high speed chase, the trooper lost control of his vehicle and crashed. He then sued the State of Maryland as the employer of the dispatcher, arguing that he would not have pursued the suspect at such a high speed if he knew it was only a petty theft.
As the cliché goes, bad facts make bad law. Perhaps the Court of Appeals knew this and is why they worded their holding as follows:
“We hold that, under the facts of this case, the firefighter’s rule bars Petitioner, Richard White, a police officer injured during a high-speed chase of a fleeing suspect, from suing Respondent, State of Maryland, the employer of a police dispatcher whose negligence caused Petitioner to engage in the high-speed chase.” (Footnote omitted).
In my practice, and for most personal injury attorneys representing public safety officers, the issue isn’t what happens when a trooper has a single car accident; in that situation, I agree with the Court. But the real problem is below.
Officer (O) stops motorist A for speeding. O follows all of the rules and does everything he is supposed to do. The vehicles are safely on the shoulder; O’s vehicle is at an angle giving him some protection as he speaks to A. While O is standing beside A’s vehicle, motorist B negligently strikes O causing bodily injury to O.
Under the Firefighter’s rule, it is clear that O has no cause-of-action (meaning no case) against A. It was A’s speeding that caused O to have to exit his cruiser and is one of the causes for O’s injury, but, any case against A is barred by the Firefighter’s rule. The real question is whether O has a claim against B. It was not B’s negligence that caused O to be on the side of the road and out of his cruiser. Some attorneys believe that O is barred from any claim against B under the Fireman’s rule, and that essentially, O accepted the risk of that injury when he entered the Academy. This is the prevailing defense in such a case. I disagree, and many jurisdictions are on my side. O is barred from a claim against A for putting O in a dangerous situation, but B acted directly in injuring O and was not one of “those whose negligence necessitated the public safety officers’ presence at the location where the injury occurred.” White .
The Court in White did not address all of the important issues related to the Fireman’s rule. Considering the number of officers injured in the line of duty, I am sure that in time, the Court will have to address the above fact pattern. I can only hope that the Court will force B to take responsibility for his negligent actions. In the current state of the law, O is generally forced to settle with B’s insurer for change on the dollar and B avoids personal responsibility for his actions.
By Craig I. Meyers, Esq.