Area of Liability Concern for Fire Departments: Assisting Police

Tonight I was going through the most recent court decisions available through my Lexis subscription, and after the fourth one realized there were striking similarities that go beyond the fact a fire department was mentioned in each. Each case was a lawsuit brought by someone who had been arrested by the police.

In each case, the fire department responded to assist the police, and found themselves at the center of a problem between a citizen and officers. While the fire department was not a named defendant in each, the similarities between the cases, along with similarities with other cases I am seeing, caused me to want to take a closer look.

Responses to assist police have always been a high-risk activity for fire and EMS providers, but the risk was always considered more of an operational-safety concern. With the proliferation lawsuits against police departments, fire department inevitably find themselves in the sights of those uphappy with how they were treated.

The concern led me to query my database. Between 2007 and 2014, there were 1546 civil suits in which fire departments were named as defendants. Just 3 of those cases (3/1546 or 0.19%) involve incident responses where firefighters were assisting police. In the seven years since (2015 to 2022) 46 of 1290 civil suits (3.56%) involve firefighters assisting police. By my count that is nearly a 20-fold increase (stat-Eagles…. help me out here… but I believe it is an 18.74-fold increase).

This issue warrants much more consideration than what I can offer here, but at least it is now on my radar – and it should be on all of ours. To put those numbers in perspective, between 2007-2014 there were 6 civil suits over rekindles, and 3 civil suits between 2015 and 2022. The most common civil suit over both periods were sexual harassment suits, which were 162 and 135 respectively.

While the total number of suits arising out of assisting police might not seem that important, the rate of increase is what concerns me. I should also point out that 2007 to 2014 was a full 7 years, while the current period is still going on. The year label may even be contributing to undercounting the suits in 2015-2022 because the year represents the year in which the event that triggered the suit took place, not the year the case was filed or decided. Thus incidents occurring in 2021 and 2022 may give rise to additional lawsuits over the next few years, which will undoubtedly increase the extent of the problem beyond what it is now.

Here are the four cases that brought this to my attention, for those who may be interested:

Hardie v. City of Albany, 2022 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 107995 (ND NY, 2022)

Cota v. Santa Ana Police Dep’t, 2022 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 108703 (CD CA, 2022)

Kudla v. City of Hammond, 2022 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 107482 (ND Ind., 2022)

Jaddo v. Town & City of Stamford, 2022 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 107352 (Conn. DC, 2022)

Here are the copies:

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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