The Augusta Chronicle reported yesterday on a Richmond County sheriff's deputy who was injured by a drunk driver on Washington Road while on duty. The auto accident, and another in downtown Atlanta reported by Atlanta NBC affiliate WXIA – 11 Alive that also involved law enforcement, brings to mind a recent decision of the Georgia Court of Appeals that limited the ability of a law enforcement officer to recover for personal injuries caused by the wrongdoing of others in the course of duty, at least in some cases.
An old doctrine known as the “Fireman's Rule” limits the ability of public safety officials (including Firemen as well as police and law enforcement) from recovering for personal injuries against a third-party if the negligence that results in the official's injury is the same negligence the officer is responding to. Martin v. Gaither, 219 Ga. App 646, 446 S.E.2d 621 (1995). Or as phrased differently in another Court of Appeals decision, “The relevant inquiry is whether the negligently created risk which resulted in the injury was the very reason for the officer's presence on the scene in his professional capacity. If the answer is yes, then recovery is barred; if no, recovery may be had.” Bycom Corp. v. White, 187 Ga. App. 759 (1998).
In a case involving an actual fireman, for example, if a fireman were injured responding to a fire that was negligently caused by someone falling asleep with a lit candle or cigarette, for example, the officer would likely be precluded from recovering for injuries he or she sustained.
In Watson Used Cars, LLC v. Kirkland, an October 2017 decision of the Georgia Court of Appeals, the court considered the case of a wreck involving a Baker County Sheriff's deputy who was injured while responding to another wreck. The first wreck was allegedly caused by grass clippings that had been thrown on the roadway by an employee of Watson Used Cars, a local business. For purposes of the appeal, Watson Used Cars did not dispute that the act was negligent. The grass clippings then caused a car to lose traction and wreck. The Baker County deputy responding to the wreck, Kirkland, traveled the same road, and also wrecked because of the grass clippings. He then filed a personal injury lawsuit against Watson Used Cars.
The Georgia Court of Appeals held that the Fireman's Rule meant that Kirkland could not recover against the car dealer. It found that his injury was caused by the same negligent act (the car dealer employee's allowing grass clippings to accumulate on the roadway) that was the reason he was responding to the scene, and therefore it fell under the rule.
The Fireman's Rule contains an important exception: where the at-fault party's acts were willful, wanton, or showed an intent to cause the injury, the Fireman's Rule may not apply. It may also not apply where a police officer or other public safety official is injured by a “mantrap,” meaning a dangerous condition on property that is intended to harm trespassers or licensees (social guests on property). Moreover, the Fireman's Rule does not prevent an officer from receiving Workers' Compensation benefits or disability insurance, since those types of claims are not against the negligent party.
Applying these principles to the two recent cases reported above, it appears that the Fireman's Rule would not apply to the Augusta case, since the Richmond County deputy was not responding to a situation involving the drunk driver: she was merely sitting in traffic and was rear-ended. It may well also be the case, even if that were not the case, that the act of driving drunk is willful or wanton so as to remove the application of the rule. In the Atlanta case reported by 11 Alive, it is unclear who was at fault, and what the circumstances were. But if another driver was at fault, and the officer was not responding to the scene because of that driver's fault, then that officer may also be able to recover.
It should be noted that a petition for certiorari has been filed in the Watson Used Cars case. Therefore, it is possible that the Georgia Supreme Court will further review the issue, and may reach a contrary result to the Court of Appeals.