A New Jersey volunteer fire company that responded to a wires down incident in 2007, has been hit with a major portion of a $20.5 million verdict in favor of a man who was shocked and traumatically injured.
Last Friday, a jury found the Northside Engine Company, of Tinton Falls, to be 60 percent responsible for the injuries sustained by William Hagerman on February 15, 2007. The jury concluded that the remaining 40% share was attributable to Jersey Central Power & Light.
The incident occurred during an ice storm. The fire company was dispatched to reported wires down, and according to Hagerman’s attorney, Norman Hobbie, left the scene aware that the wires were live and in the Hagerman’s driveway.
News reports also indicate that an electric company supervisor and a police officer were on the scene when Hagerman and his wife attempted to drive out of their driveway. The car struck the wires, creating sparks that prompted Hagerman to pull back into the driveway and exit the vehicle. Unfortunately when he exited his vehicle, it was still in contact with the wires.
As a result of his injuries, Hagerman lost an arm and a leg, and suffered massive burn injuries. Oddly enough the jury did not assess any fault to Hagerman himself, nor a police officer who was on the scene. In fact, Hobbie referred to the police officer as the “hero” of the story for coming to Hagerman’s aid following his injury.
While some of what has been written about the case seems to make sense, I have to admit I am a bit baffled. First of all, was ICS used by the responding agencies and/or considered by the lawyers? The news reports don’t get into the details of what occurred – but ICS is one of those things that lawyers (non-firefighter lawyers that is) do not quite understand. If command of the incident had been duly turned over to the police and/or the electric company supervisor, why was the fire department even in the suit…. Of course if ICS was not used… or they didn’t formally pass command … well… that might explain why they were left holding the bag.
Second, how can the homeowner not bear some level of responsibility for noticing a down electrical wire in his driveway? Wouldn’t the various fire, police and electric company vehicles parked in front of his property be a tip-off that something might be up? Seriously, are people entitled to be that oblivious that it becomes totally our obligation to protect them from hazards such as electrical wires down in their own driveway? Zero % responsibility to Hagerman, himself…. Seriously? Not even 1%???
Third, if volunteer firefighters have an obligation to warn Mr. Hagerman, why wouldn’t a paid police officer have an obligation to warn Mr. Hagerman? Why would it fall 60% on the fire department (who were no longer on the scene) and 40% on the electric company, and 0% on the police? Sometimes these cases come down to the lawyering and if the right arguments are not made…. Well … you end up with a verdict that leaves you scratching your head. Then again, if a fire company really did drive away from a truly dangerous situation involving lives wires down leaving them totally unattended and someone gets seriously injured.. what would you expect to be the outcome?
Lastly – I would have expected the fire department to have been dismissed from the case based on the public duty rule, and perhaps that issue, or some form of immunity argument may still be litigated in a post-verdict motion and/or appeal. (Note a quick check failed to disclose any prior public duty rule cases in NJ…. Hint to fire company lawyer… maybe its not too late to make some new law….). Stay tuned… its not over til…. the check is in the bank.