Suit by FDNY Firefighter Prompts Questions About The Fireman’s Rule

A lawsuit filed by an FDNY firefighter against a homeowner has prompted a rather indignant television news commentary proclaiming: “Did you know there are laws… that allow firefighters to sue you?” Oh my gosh… really??? You mean those scoundrel firefighters could sue JUST LIKE A NORMAL PERSON WHO IS INJURED THROUGH THE NEGLIGENCE OF ANOTHER COULD SUE? How terrible!!!!

Imagine that – what is the world coming to when a person cannot negligently start a fire, or negligently maintain one’s property – and still get the benefit of immunity from liability if a firefighter is killed or injured? How will our democracy survive?

OK – enough of the sarcasm – sometimes I just can’t help myself…. This is a very serious topic, but it amazes me how the media can present such a one sided perspective.

FF Andrew Cannon was injured three years ago at a fire, and filed suit against the homeowner, Kudar Uday. That suit prompted an I Team news expose that cautions its listeners to pay attention “or else you could find yourself with a costly surprise…” Take a look:

You will note that the segment closes with Uday discussing his reluctance to call 911 in the future out of fear of lawsuits. Interestingly – there is no discussion about him being more careful to avoid negligently starting a fire in the first place… just his reluctance to call 911. Investigative reporting at its best!

IMHO that point remains part of the reason why the fire problem in the United States remains higher than any other industrialized nation: here in the US someone can negligently cause a fire – and the expectation is they will be perceived as a victim, the fire will be declared an “accident”, and they will have no financial responsibility for what harm occurs to others.

In the US a fire is considered to be an accident that could happen to anyone. Overload an electrical outlet – we are so sorry, here is your insurance check – we feel so bad for you. Leave flammable paint cans so close to your furnace that they catch fire – our condolences on your loss, here’s your check. Sparks from your welding operation start a fire that kills 2 firefighters – you must feel terrible about that – maybe we can get you some counseling.

But to the firefighters who are injured… sorry guys, it goes with the turf. Suck it up, cupcake!!!!

The ancient Fireman’s Rule aligns perfectly with that perception… and as we see in this news segment – the media gives the negligent “victim” a free pass.

So how about the welders who negligently started the Boston fire earlier this year that killed two firefighters? Do they get a free pass also – or is their negligence somehow different?

And what about the cost to the taxpayers. Should a municipality be allowed to recover the costs associated with an injury/compensation paid to a firefighter injured due to the negligence of a third party? If an injured firefighter’s medical bills and compensation cost $100,000, and his disability pension costs $700,000 (that’s a low-ball figure BTW) – why shouldn’t the taxpayers be able to recover their costs from the person who negligently caused the injury?

The law allows non-firefighters (non-emergency responders) and their employers to recover from a negligent party. A UPS driver injured through the negligence of a homeowner while delivering a package can recover… and if UPS pays him workers comp UPS is entitled to recover. A carpenter injured by the negligence of a homeowner can recover for his injuries and if his health insurer pays any bills on his behalf they can recover their costs.

In the Cannon case, the city of NY should be allowed to have a lien on Cannon’s recovery – so the taxpayers could recover all of their costs associated with Cannon’s injuries before Cannon see’s a penny… How did the I-Team neglect to mention that in their haste to warn the public of the imminent threat posed by firefighters being allowed to sue?

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 45 years of fire service experience and 35 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, 4th ed. 2022) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.

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