Backing Death Case Headed to Ohio Supreme Court

The husband of a woman who was run over by a backing fire truck is appealing a ruling that granted immunity to the fire department. Lorri Riehm, 53, was killed in 2016 when she was run over by a Green Springs Rural Volunteer Fire Department vehicle that was repositioning at the scene of a water rescue incident.

An investigation determined that firefighter Seth Knieriemen was backing a brush unit slowly down a path atop an embankment that was commonly used as a walking trail. He did not have spotters and his vision was partially obstructed by a hose reel. Riehm was reportedly walking on the embankment trail wearing headphones with her back to the approaching vehicle when she was struck and killed.

Riehm’s husband, Paul, filed suit against the Green Springs Rural Volunteer Fire Department and Knieriemen for negligence, recklessness, repondeat superior, wrongful death, and a survival action. The fire department and Knieriemen argued they were entitled to summary judgment on all issues based on immunity. The trial court found there was a question of fact as to whether Knieriemen’s conduct in backing without spotters and checking behind the apparatus was more than mere negligence, and thus not entitled to immunity.

The fire department and Knieriemen appealed that ruling to the Ohio Court of Appeals, who reversed finding that at worst, Knieriemen was negligent:

  • Knieriemen checked all three of his mirrors and saw no one in his path, and he backed up slowly while the emergency lights were still flashing.
  • There is no evidence that he backed up quickly or that he did so without paying an attention whatsoever to his surroundings.
  • To the contrary, the only evidence in the record demonstrate that Knieriemen did exercise some care.
  • ‘Mere negligence is not converted into wanton misconduct unless the evidence establishes a disposition to perversity on the part of the tortfeasor,’ and ‘[s]uch perversity must be under such condition that the actor must be conscious that his conduct will in all probability result in injury.’
  • This case certainly presents a tragic accident, but the immunity statutes were designed to prevent liability unless certain extreme conduct was present.
  • The facts of this case do not rise to the level of willful or wanton conduct to subject GSRVFD to liability.

Paul Riehm is now appealing the Court of Appeals’ decision to the Ohio Supreme Court. Here is a copy of the Court of Appeals’ ruling: Riehm v Green Springs RVFD

The case presents an interesting fact pattern for those who teach fire service law, as well as who focus on apparatus safety, apparatus policies, backing, spotters and training. The court does a good job of explaining the legal standards involved in these types of cases, and the role of immunity laws in limiting liability.

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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