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The Rescue Doctrine: Property Owner Responsibility for Firefighter Injuries

Posted on January 14, 2019
by Stacey L. Pietrowicz

Stacey L. Pietrowicz
T

This past Tuesday, co-owners of a multi-family property in Everett were arraigned in District Court for wanton and reckless disregard of fire codes and building codes that prosecutors say resulted in injuries to two Everett firefighters back in July. This is a nearly textbook example of the “rescue doctrine”.

Electrical Fire on Morris Street

On a Friday afternoon in July, fire broke out in a three-family apartment house on Morris Street in Everett. Investigators determined that an electrical panel with an overloaded circuit caused the fire. Though zoned as a three-family, the house was occupied by 19 residents. As a result, the electrical boxes were “over utilized”.

In 2017, building inspectors issued 59 fire code and wiring violations – which were never rectified. According to prosecutors, the landlords told tenants that the inspections were only checking for smoke detectors.  

Everett Fire Lieutenant Scott Dalrymple suffered severe burns to multiple parts of his body, including his hands. Dalrymple’s injuries will not allow him to return to active duty firefighting. Another firefighter and a civilian suffered minor injuries.

Based on investigatory findings that the landlords failed to correct multiple building and fire code violations that resulted in the fire starting in the electrical panel, Lt. Dalrymple may be entitled to bring a civil claim for injuries he sustained in the course of locating and rescuing occupants of the home.

The “Rescue Doctrine” vs. The “Firefighter’s Rule”

Firefighters injured or killed while responding to fires may bring personal injury claims against individuals or entities negligent in causing the fires. This was not always the case.

Massachusetts recognizes the “rescue doctrine”, which in Barnes v. Geiger the court described as:

Negligence which creates peril invites rescue and, should the rescuer be hurt in the process, the [person responsible] will be held liable not only to the primary victim, but to the rescuer as well."

This was further addressed in Hopkins v. Medeiros. In Hopkins, the Massachusetts Appeals Court held that a police officer injured in a fight, while attempting to rescue other officers, could recover damages against a man who incited the fight. The court wrote:

"To be considered a rescuer, an individual must engage in a proactive attempt to free another from danger." Id.

A firefighter running into a burning building to attempt rescue of any occupants would likely fit this description.

In past times, the so-called “firefighter’s rule” prevented injured firefighters from recovering damages in these situations. But in Hopkins, the court held that since Massachusetts law explicitly allows injured police officers to recover damages, it follows that firefighters may as well.

SUGARMAN has extensive experience representing firefighters who have been injured or killed when responding to fires caused by negligent acts or omissions of property owners or controlling entities. Learn More: www.sugarman.com/news-and-blog/firefighter-injuries-in-massachusetts.

If you or a family member has been seriously injured and wish to speak with one of our personal injury attorneys, please fill out a Contact Form, call us at (617) 542-1000 or e-mail info@sugarman.com.