New Hampshire Legislature Tinkering With Fireman’s Rule

The New Hampshire legislature is considering a law to reverse a ruling last year by the state Supreme Court that limited the application of the Fireman’s Rule.

The Fireman’s Rule is a legal theory that limits the right of firefighters, EMS workers, and police officers to sue property owners and others for negligence for a line of duty injury. There are a number of variations on the Fireman’s Rule theme. Some states limit the application of the rule to negligent property owners, some to negligence that causes the emergency, and some to negligence that occurs prior to firefighters arriving on scene. There are also some states that adopt a blanket policy of prohibiting suits by emergency responders.

In New Hampshire, the Fireman’s Rule as currently enacted into law reads as follows:

RSA 507:8-h  Firefighters, emergency medical technicians (E.M.T.’s), police officers and other public safety officers shall have no cause of action for injuries arising from negligent conduct which created the particular occasion for the officer’s official engagement. However, this section does not affect such officer’s causes of action for unrelated negligent conduct occurring during the officer’s official engagement, or for other negligent conduct . . .

Last year the New Hampshire Supreme Court ruled that a firefighter responding to a house fire who slipped on ice in the homeowner’s driveway could sue for negligence because the negligence which caused the emergency (the fire) was not the negligence which caused the injury (ice in the driveway).

Apparently upset with that distinction, five republican legislators have set about amending the law. Here is the proposed legislative text:

Firefighters, emergency medical technicians (E.M.T.’s), police officers and other public safety officers shall have no cause of action for injuries arising from negligent conduct [which created the particular occasion for the officer’s official engagement] related to the officer’s official duties. However, this section does not affect such officer’s causes of action for [unrelated negligent conduct occurring during the officer’s official engagement, or for] other negligent conduct, or for reckless, wanton, or willful acts of misconduct.

I am not a big fan of the Fireman’s Rule in any of its various forms, but I understand the role it plays in our society. One of the concerns underlying the rule was summed up quite well by David Lang, President of the Professional Firefighters of New Hampshire: “We do not want homeowners to wait and take a second thought before calling in an emergency because they haven’t shoveled a driveway or fixed a broken stair.” It is hard to argue with that reasoning.

However, changing the law may do a whole lot more than let a careless homeowner (and his homeowner’s insurer) off the hook in a slip and fall case. If firefighters are at the scene of a vehicle accident and an inattentive driver plows into them, is that driver’s negligence “related to the officer’s official duties”, or would it be considered “other negligent conduct”? The inattentive driver could argue that the injured firefighters cannot sue because the firefighters were there pursuant to their official duties.

What if a homeowner who knows of a dangerous condition present in a house, calls 911 for a house fire and when the firefighters arrive fails to warn them of a hidden hazard (hole in floor, missing stairs, chemicals, vicious animals, etc.), and a firefighter is thereby injured. It is not at all clear to me based on the proposed language – but what is clear is that in both of these examples (inattentive driver and homeowner without a conscience) an injured firefighter would be able to sue under the law as currently written.

There are a number of states that have gone the other way from New Hampshire and totally abolished the Fireman’s Rule. In such a state a firefighter is just like anyone else who comes upon someone else’s property. Firefighters can sue when the homeowner fails to act as the reasonably prudent person would have acted under the circumstances, breaches a legal duty owed to the firefighter, and causes injury.

The fact that we all can’t list the states that have abolished the Fireman’s Rule off the top of our head is a testament to the fact that folks in those states have not stopped calling 911, nor have firefighters clogged the courthouses with negligence claims.

Here is more on the NH story.

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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