Jacksonville Firefighters Suit to Proceed, Firefighter’s Rule Rejected

A lawsuit filed by ten Jacksonville firefighters who were injured in a ship fire will proceed as the trial court rejected defense motions to dismiss their claims based on the Firefighters’ Rule.

The injured firefighters, Captain Kristopher Jolly, Lt. Jeremy Lee, Chief Matthew Cipriani, Firefighter Paramedic Shawn O’Shell, Lt. Paul Masci, Firefighter Nicholas Gettler, Engineer Landon Simmons, Firefighter Paramedic Samuel Banks, Firefighter William Reed and Engineer Wesley Miller, were caught in an explosion aboard the cargo ship Hoegh Xiamen. They and their spouses filed suit naming Hoegh Autoliners Shipping, Hoegh Autoliners Management, Hoegh Autoliners, Horizon Terminal Services, Grimaldi Deep Sea and SSA Marine as defendants.

The court explained what occurred as follows:

  • The Vessel caught fire shortly after the loading operations were completed.
  • The Firemen were among approximately 120 JFRD personnel who responded to the scene, where they attempted to extinguish the fire and ensure the safety of the Vessel and its crew.
  • When they arrived, JFRD personnel sought out the Vessel’s crew to obtain information about the 15-floor Vessel and identify the location of the fire.
  • However, the Vessel’s crew spoke little English and could not communicate any meaningful information to JFRD, such as where the fire was located or any potentially hazardous conditions that would make fighting the fire more difficult.
  • This delayed JFRD’s response and allowed the fire to grow unabated for one hour and forty minutes.
  • After JFRD reconnaissance crews located the source of the fire, firefighter crews were sent in and periodically alternated in order to combat the blaze.
  • The Firemen were part of the JFRD crew on board the Vessel when an explosion occurred.
  • Trapped in a stairwell, the Firemen were exposed to extreme temperatures and hit with the power of the blast.
  • The Firemen suffered injuries that included severe burns, broken bones, lacerations, and emotional trauma.
  • The Spouses were deprived of the care, comfort, consortium, and services of their husbands because of the incident as well

The suit was originally filed Duval County Circuit Court, but removed to federal court by the defendants. Because the ship was berthed in navigable waterways, admiralty law governs the case. That issue is central to the case because while Florida has rejected the Firefighter’s Rule, a federal court sitting in admiralty must apply general maritime law, not just applicable state law.

The defendants sought to have the suit dismissed based upon the Firefighter’s Rule, which limits the right of firefighters, EMS workers, and police officers to sue property owners and others for negligence for a line of duty injury. The defendants also sought to have the claims of the spouses dismissed, along with some procedural relief.

In wrestling with the Firefighter’s Rule, the court concluded:

  • The question, then, becomes whether Florida’s policy of allowing firefighters to sue those who negligently start fires is consistent with general maritime law’s principles and policies.
  • As noted above, general maritime law imposes a duty of reasonable care to anyone on board a vessel.
  • This is consistent with Florida’s policy of treating firefighters as invitees, rather than licensees, and establishing a more general duty of care compared to the heightened one that existed under the state’s firefighter’s rule.
  • Additionally, the majority of courts applying general maritime law’s duty of reasonable care have allowed first responders to recover against individuals whose negligence caused the emergency giving rise to their presence at a scene in some form or fashion.
  • These cases weigh against a finding of a “long-established history” of precluding claims like those asserted by the Firemen, as required for the Court to set aside Florida law.
  • Moreover, if there ever was a body of law that embraced policies that promote rescue and salvage, it is general maritime law.
  • It would be wholly inconsistent for a body of law that rewards the voluntary rescuer to in turn punish or disadvantage the professional rescuer.
  • Therefore, Florida law and general maritime law are in harmony with respect to whether rescuers, such as the Firemen, can recover against anyone whose negligence caused the situation giving rise to their injuries.
  • Both bodies of law support a duty to act reasonably and in consideration for the safety of others.
  • If that duty is breached by negligently starting a fire that requires rescue personnel to respond, the negligent party will be responsible for the injuries to all who are affected by it—whether they be seamen protected by the Jones Act or firefighters who knowingly enter a blaze to rescue life and property.
  • Having provided sufficient allegations that Defendants were negligent in causing the fire on board the Vessel, the Firemen have plausibly alleged negligence causes of action against all Defendants.

While denying the defense motion to dismiss the firefighter’s negligence claims, the court granted the defense motion to dismiss the spouses’ claims, concluding they were not permitted under maritime principles. Here is a copy of the ruling.

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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