Are Police Officers, Firefighters And Other First Responders Allowed To Sue For Injuries Sustained In The Line Of Duty in New Jersey?
The short answer is yes. If a first responder was hurt responding to an emergency situation, that person does have the right to bring a claim against the parties responsible for causing the emergency situation. The first responder would still have to prove negligence- duty, breach, proximate cause and harm- but in New Jersey the officer would not be barred from bringing the claim. This is known as the “fireman’s rule” or the firefighter’s rule.”
The fireman’s rule is a common law principle that was first applied in New Jersey in 1960, and operated to preclude recovery against an individual whose negligence created the need for the presence of firefighters and first responders. Krauth v. Geller, 31 N.J. 270 (1960). The policy underlying this rule was that it would be too burdensome on the legal system to charge every negligent person who caused or failed to prevent a fire with injuries sustained by first responders, stating that first responders chose their profession and accepted the risks that would inevitably occur from dealing with the negligence of others. Id. at 131.
The rule was broadened after Kreuth, and in 1979 the rule was held to apply to volunteer firefighters. Ferraro v. Demetrakis, 167 N.J. Super. 429 (Super. Ct. App. Div. 1979). In 1983, the rule was held to apply to negligence claims of police officers. Berko v. Freda, 93 N.J. 81 (1983). The Supreme Court of New Jersey went farther in 1991, holding that the fireman’s rule also barred liability when the injuries arose from any negligent acts by third parties that firefighters and police officers should expect to encounter in their normal course of duty. Rosa v. Dunkin’ Donuts of Passaic, 122 N.J. 66 (1991).
The fireman’s rule came to an end in 1994, when the New Jersey legislature enacted N.J. Stat. Ann § 2A:62A-21, which provides that any law enforcement officer, first responder or firefighter who is injured in the normal course of duty as the direct or indirect result of negligence may seek recovery and damages from the person whose neglect caused the situation requiring the response by police or firefighters. N.J. Stat. § 2A:62A-21. The plain language of the statute appeared to eliminate the applicability of the fireman’s rule in New Jersey. Id. In 2003, the Third Circuit held that the plain language of the statute abolished the fireman’s rule by explicitly providing a cause of action for firefighters against persons who negligently started or failed to prevent the fire or emergency that caused the injuries. Roma v. United States, 344 F.3d 352, 361-362 (3d Cir. 2003). The Third Circuit stated that the plain language of the statute was “a persuasive indication” that negligence claims by firefighters were no longer precluded. Id. at 362. Roma was upheld in 2007, when the Supreme Court of New Jersey stated that the plain language of the statute eliminated the applicability of the fireman’s rule to police officers when it held that a police officer was entitled to bring forth a cause of action of negligence for injuries received from responding to an emergency situation that defendants negligently failed to prevent. Ruiz v. Mero, 189 N.J. 525, 527-528 (2007).
In conclusion, the statute provides for a cause of action for first responders who are injured in the course of duty when responding to situations that were caused by an individual’s negligence, abolishing the fireman’s rule. N.J. Stat. § 2A:62A-21. This cause of action is limited in one way, which is that injured first responders are unable to seek recovery or damages from an employer or co-worker, as detailed in N.J.S.A. § 2A:62A-22. Assemb. Judiciary, Law and Pub. Safety Comm., Statement to Assembly Bill No. 1342, at 1 (Aug. 24, 1992).
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