Combative Patients and Self-Defense

Today’s burning question: My crew was on an EMS run and the patient took a swing at us. Can we hit him back to defend ourselves?

Answer: Hit him back to defend yourself? You can defend yourself, yes. If striking the patient is necessary to defend yourself, then yes you can strike the patient without being liable for battery. However, you cannot strike the patient in retaliation for him swinging or striking you, nor can you strike the patient out of frustration. Striking the patient while not directly defending yourself could be a criminal offense besides opening you and the department to civil liability… even if he swung first!!!

Two Glendale, Arizona firefighters have been suspended following an investigation into an altercation that started when they were assaulted by a patient, but escalated into them responding with what was termed “excessive force” to restrain the patient.

The firefighters, whose names have not been released, were treating a combative patient last October. According to Fire Chief Mark Burdick the firefighters were never trained on how to handle violent patients, and responded in kind when attacked. Chief Burdick was quoted as saying “We had never trained (them) on what to do if they are assaulted, and I own that.”

Rather than ordering more serious discipline, the chief opted to issue brief suspensions to the members involved, with a captain receiving two days off and a firefighter receiving one day off. According to the chief:

  • “I don’t want firefighters to strike a patient.”
  • “I wanted to send a message that this won’t be tolerated.”

All firefighters in the department now have received training in how to handle combative patients.

Here is a video from the incident scene, which incidentally brings up another common problem: firefighters violating the First Amendment Rights of citizens to film events in public places.

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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