Firefighters put their lives and health on the line to protect their community. They charge into dangerous situations without thinking twice about their own well-being. However, when it comes to injuries sustained in the line of duty, often times firefighters are barred from collecting any damages.

This is because of what is known as the Fireman’s Rule. This rule can apply to other emergency personnel, so it also goes under other names, including the police officers’ rule, rescue rule, or rescue doctrine. The rule states that, as opposed to normal citizens, public safety officers are not able to file a lawsuit or recover damages as a result of negligent behavior while they are in the line of duty. The justification for this law is three-fold:

Premises liability

Under the normal application of premises liability law, there are three different types of visitors to a property: invitee, licensee, and trespasser. Invitee’s are owed a duty of care as they have the landowner’s expressed permission to enter the property and the assumption of safety. Licensee’s have the landowners implied permission to enter a property, such as a salesmen, but are only owed a duty if the landowner is aware or reasonably should have been aware that a hazard existed. Trespassers are typically not owed a duty of care for entering the premises illegally. Under these three definitions, firefighters and other emergency personnel fall under the category of a licensee. Thus, the property owner is only liable for willful or intentional injuries.

Matter of Public Policy

This justification is based on the idea that public policy supports firefighters through taxes and special benefits, not individual lawsuits. Public policy is a means of spreading out the cost of injuries to the entire community, rather than on a individual basis. The entire public collectively serves as an insurer to emergency personnel.

Assumption of Risk

The assumption of risk is the main justification for the Fireman’s Rule. This idea states that firefighting or policing are inherently dangerous jobs. As such, all emergency personnel assume this risk by performing their duties. Therefore, recovery cannot be claimed against individuals whose negligence created the need for assistance in the first place.

However, there are some important caveats. The assumption of risk only covers hazards that are known or reasonably foreseen. This means that a firefighter would not be able to sue for common injuries that one would expect to sustain while fighting a fire. However, someone could be held liable if:

  • They fail to tell the firefighters of a known hazard, such as a broken gas line, that leads to a more serious injury.
  • They commit an intentional act that harms the firefighter.
  • The fire fighter is off duty and voluntarily stopped to help.

Issues with the Law

As expected, there are many grey areas when it comes to the Fireman’s Rule.

  • It may be hard to determine how much someone actually knew or could have reasonably prevented further harm in a given situation.
  • Determining the intentional nature of conduct during a panic or high-pressure situation could be difficult or misleading.
  • The scale of a disaster could be so large that fire fighters need additional compensation. Take 9/11 for example. There is rarely government compensation for firefighters after a natural disaster, such a as a wildfire, or terrorist attack. Firefighters in the line of duty needed additional funding to be fairly compensated for their injuries, many of which were life long. This was the catalyst that led New York City personal injury attorneys to advocate for the creation of the Victims Compensation Fund (VCF).

Because of situations like these, many states have chosen to disregard the Fireman’s Rule. The following table below shows each state’s position on this controversial law.

Application of the Fireman’s Rule by State

State Position on Law
Alabama Not Applied
Alaska Public Policy
Arizona Public Policy
Arkansas Public Policy
California Assumption of Risk/Public Policy
Colorado Not Applied
Connecticut Assumption of Risk/Public Policy
Delaware Public Policy
District of Columbia Assumption of Risk
Florida Not Applied
Georgia Public Policy
Hawaii Public Policy
Idaho Public Policy
Illinois Assumption of Risk
Indiana Public Policy
Iowa Public Policy
Kansas Public Policy
Kentucky Public Policy
Louisiana Assumption of Risk
Maine Not Applied
Maryland Public Policy
Massachusetts Not Applied
Michigan Not Applied
Minnesota Not Applied
Mississippi Public Policy
Missouri Public Policy
Montana Not Applied
Nebraska Assumption of Risk
Nevada Assumption of Risk
New Hampshire Public Policy
New Jersey Not Applied
New Mexico Public Policy
New York Not Applied
North Carolina Not Applied
North Dakota Not Applied
Ohio Assumption of Risk/Public Policy
Oklahoma Premises Liability
Oregon Not Applied
Pennsylvania Not Applied
Rhode Island Assumption of Risk
South Carolina Not Applied
South Dakota Public Policy
Tennessee Public Policy
Texas Premises Liability
Utah Public Policy
Vermont Not Applied
Virginia Assumption of Risk
Washington Premises Liability
West Virginia Not Applied
Wisconsin Public Policy
Wyoming Not Applied

Have you Been Injured?

As can be seen above, there is plenty of disagreement about the Fireman’s Rule at the state level. Furthermore, how this law is realistically applied on a case by case basic can create even more confusion. Nevertheless, it is important for all emergency personnel to understand their rights under the law so they do not miss out on compensation after an injury. If you have sustained and injury as a police officer, firefighter, or another emergency responder, please request a free consultation to discuss your rights under the law.