Clumsy Plaintiffs and Standpipes

Today’s burning question: I was walking in an older part of the city of [redacted] recently when I tripped and fell, hitting an uncapped standpipe connection on the way down.  The edge of the standpipe was jagged and rusty.  It is my understanding that leaving a standpipe uncapped is a code violation because debris in the pipe could make the pipe less useful for firefighting.  If the pipe is no longer in service, then I think the responsible thing to do would have been to cap it permanently. I now have a significant injury to my face as a result that required plastic surgery, and will require more care after the scar heals sufficiently. Can I sue the fire department for my injury?  I now have a scar on my face and no matter how much plastic surgery I have it will be with me for the rest of my life.

Answer: I am a bit confused about why you would blame the fire department for your injury. If anyone was to be the target of your suit, it would be the building owner, not the fire department. The building owner is legally responsible for ensuring that the building meets all applicable fire and building codes, not the fire department. While admittedly the fire department may be responsible to inspect the building to ensure compliance, fire department is not responsible to remedy these kinds of defects. That responsibility belongs to the building owner.

If you choose to sue the fire department, be prepared for a host of liability protections that the building owner would not, starting with sovereign immunity, statutory immunity, and the public duty doctrine, and ending with a question of proximate cause. My recommendation would be to pursue the building owner, not the fire department.

Going after the building owner won’t be a slam dunk either. You point out that the reason that standpipes should be capped is to prevent debris from getting into the pipe. Said another way, standpipes are NOT capped is to prevent people who trip and fall from being injured if they strike the uncapped connection. As a result, you can count on the building owner’s attorney seeking to block you from introducing the code violation into evidence since it is irrelevant to your injury.

You should also be aware that your own comparative negligence in tripping could be used to offset any recovery you are otherwise entitled to. For example, if a jury determines your damages were $100,000, and the jury finds that you were 75% at fault for tripping, you could only recover $25,000.

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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