An Oklahoma trial court has dismissed a wrongful death lawsuit filed by the widow of a firefighter who died last year at the scene of a water rescue when he was caught by floodwaters.
Claremore Fire Captain Jason Farley, 44, died on May 23, 2015 when he was pulled into a flooded storm drain. His widow, Shelli Farley, sued the City of Claremore for wrongful death alleging (1) it failed to comply with NFPA 1670, and (2) it was responsible for the storm drain that caught him. At the time of the incident, the grate over the storm drain had been removed.
Rogers County District Court Judge Sheila Condren granted the city’s motion to dismiss the suit this afternoon, concluding that despite the fact that Captain Farley was a hero “who died protecting and saving the lives of others…. this court is confined to follow the law of the State of Oklahoma.”
The basis for her ruling was a variation on the principle of workers comp exclusivity. The principle essentially holds that workers comp coverage is the “exclusive remedy” for employees injured at work. They are legally barred from suing their employer or coworkers.
While workers comp exclusivity tends to appear rather harsh in cases like this, it also serves to protect firefighters, apparatus drivers, officers, and incident commanders from suits every time a coworker is injured. There are exceptions to the exclusivity principle to address extenuating circumstances, such as intentional acts, wilful violations of laws, etc. These exceptions vary greatly from that to state.
According to news reports, Judge Condren cited the Governmental Tort Claims Act Title 51, Section 155, which states, “a political subdivision is not liable if a loss or claim results from a loss to any person covered by any workers’ compensation act.” This reasoning would make the ruling rest not simply on comp law, but also upon sovereign immunity. In this way the ruling would appear to afford Claremore immunity protection beyond that normally available under comp exclusivity.
I have not had the opportunity to review the judge’s ruling and cannot comment further on her reasoning. If the ruling becomes available, this post will be updated.