Should Firefighters Be Able To Sue?

“We live in a culture of litigation now, and I suppose the fire service isn’t any different from any others in that sense.” Interesting quote … from a former firefighter … and South Ayrshire Councillor John Allan about the settlement of a lawsuit in Scotland brought by a senior fire commander who was injured 2006.

Commander Paul Tanzilli was injured in a strange boating accident on August 9, 2006. He and a crew were evaluating the operation of a pioneer rescue boat when it hit a “freak wave” created by a nearby tug boat. Tanzilli was thrown from his seat and injured his back fracturing his L1 vertebrae.

The commander filed suit against his superiors for negligence, “claiming there was no consideration taken for ‘untrained personnel’ on board”. The £50,000 case was settled for an undisclosed amount in part because of a concern over setting a precedent that could lead to more suits if the case went to trial…. Seriously??? And exactly what message does settling the case send…

Anyway – here is a good link to the story. It is interesting to see that the US does not have a monopoly on lawsuits. While I do not know enough about the case to be able to comment in detail – one point that struck me as odd is the commentary by several people quoted in the article that suggests that because someone is a firefighter, they have accepted a level of risk and should therefore be prohibited from suing. For example:

  • “However, when I joined I knew I was putting myself at risk. You go to work every day and you don’t know how that day will end. If you are going to have to save someone or a bit of property then you will always be putting yourself at risk, and you just have to accept that.”
  • “These things happen in these services, and they happen in everyday life. It is about what is appropriate.”

I am not buying into the assumption of risk argument. As firefighters we no doubt accept a certain level of risk – but not all risk. An astronaut accepts risk. But if he is injured through the negligence of someone while he is being driven to the launch pad – he should not be prohibited from suing simply because he accepted a greater risk by agreeing to go into outer space. Again, I don’t know the specifics of the Scottish case – but accepting the risks of being a firefighter does not excuse all acts of negligence.

If the same case occurred in the US, there would be some level of liability protection offered through the workers compensation exclusivity principle. Essentially, in the US – workers compensation is considered to be the exclusive remedy for someone injured at work. An injured worker cannot sue his employer or co-workers for work related injuries except in limited circumstances. But it has nothing to do with the acceptance of a certain level of risk… If that were the case we would have librarians and accountants able to sue for injuries that firefighters could not! Interesting discussion though!!!!


About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.

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