Four NY Fire Departments Not Liable For Housefire

The Appellate Division of the New York Supreme Court has ruled that four fire departments sued by a homeowner after a fire cannot be held liable for negligence because they did not owe the homeowner a special duty.

Franciszek C. Kulon filed suit against the Neversink Fire Department, Liberty Fire District, Loch Sheldrake Fire Department, and Grahamsville Volunteer Fire Department claiming they were negligent when they responded to a fire in his home on February 18, 2014. The crux of Kulon’s case was that the fire departments failed “to timely respond and to arrive adequately equipped to properly fight the fire.” Kulon’s home was located in an area that lacked hydrants, and took apparatus over 15 minutes to reach the scene.

The fire departments claimed that fire departments do not owe a legal duty to property owners like Kulon. Their argument is similar to the public duty doctrine we discuss here regularly, although the term “public duty” is not mentioned in the case. The Supreme Court for Sullivan County agreed with the fire departments and granted their motion for summary judgment, prompting Kulon to appeal.

The Appellate Division agreed with the trial court. Quoting from the Appellate Division’s decision:

  • It is well established that no action for negligence will lie against a municipality for damages incurred in its performance of a governmental function absent the existence of a special duty.
  • A special duty is one that is “more than that owed the public generally”.
  • This doctrine was developed “to rationally limit the class of citizens to whom the municipality owes a duty of protection”
  • A special duty can be established in one of the following ways: “(1) when the municipality violates a statutory duty enacted for the benefit of a particular class of persons; (2) when it voluntarily assumes a duty that generates justifiable reliance by the person who benefits from the duty; or (3) when the municipality assumes positive direction and control in the face of a known, blatant and dangerous safety violation”.
  • In this case, plaintiff asserts the second method and alleges the existence of a special relationship between himself and defendants.
  • The long-settled elements of a special relationship are: “(1) an assumption by the governmental entity, through promises or actions, of an affirmative duty to act on behalf of the party who was injured; (2) knowledge on the part of the entity’s agents that inaction could lead to harm; (3) some form of direct contact between the entity’s agents and the injured party; and (4) that party’s justifiable reliance on the entity’s affirmative undertaking.”
  • Here, defendants LFD, LSFD and GVFD have established that they had no contact with plaintiff prior to or after arriving on scene.
  • With regard to the remaining defendant, NFD, it is undisputed that plaintiff had direct contact when he spoke to NFD’s first assistant chief at the scene.
  • However, a simple conversation with the first assistant chief, without more, does not give rise to a special duty.
  • It is undisputed that the conversation consisted of plaintiff informing the assistant chief that the home was uninsured and that the fire must be put out quickly.
  • The first assistant chief’s pat response; that they were going to try to put the fire out; did not amount to a specific promise or an assumption of an affirmative duty specific to plaintiff, but was simply an assurance that it would perform its duty owed to the public in general.
  • Additionally, there is no evidence in the record that plaintiff justifiably relied on this statement to his detriment.

Here is a copy of the decision:

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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