Ohio Fire Department’s Immunity Upheld as SC Refuses to Hear Appeal

The Supreme Court of Ohio has refused to overturn a court of appeals decision granting immunity to a fire department in a suit over the death of a woman who was backed over by a fire truck.

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 determined there was a question of fact for a jury 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.

Green Springs and Knierieman appealed to the Third District Court of Appeals, who reversed the trial court concluding that at worst Knieriemen was negligent. According to the ruling:

  • 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.

Last week, the Ohio Supreme Court declined to consider Riehm’s appeal, leaving intact the court of appeals ruling. The supreme court has broad discretion to hear appeals from the 12 district courts of appeal, but will typically only exercise that discretion in civil cases “of public or great general interest.”

Here is a copy of the supreme court ruling: Riehm v Green Springs Rural VFD

Here is a copy of the Third District Court of Appeals decision: Riehm v Green Springs RVFD

Perhaps even more interesting than either of those is the memorandum of law submitted by Riehm’s attorney arguing in favor of the supreme court hearing the appeal: Riehm v Green Springs Rural VFD Memo

Incidentally, two judges on the Ohio Supreme Court dissented from the decision, and would have heard the appeal.

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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