Can Firefighters Sue A Negligent Property Owner For Causing A Fire?
First responders such as firefighters are tasked with performing dangerous–and often deadly–tasks on a daily basis. In some cases, a first responder’s life may be at risk due to the negligence of a property owner. This begs the question: Can a firefighter file a personal injury lawsuit against a negligent property owner whose actions may have led to the fire in the first place?
Historically, it was very difficult for firefighters to win such cases. There used to be a legal doctrine known as the “Firefighter’s Rule” in Florida, which classified firefighters other first responders as “licensees” rather than “invitees” on private property. What is the difference? An invitee is a person who is lawfully on another person’s property for some business purpose. For example, if you are shopping in a grocery store, you are an “invitee” of that store’s management. A licensee, in contrast, is someone who visits the property for a social or non-business reason. If you are visiting your friend’s house to make a social call, for example, you are a licensee.
Under the rules governing personal injury law, a property owner has a higher duty of care towards invitees than licensees. Basically, if you are injured on someone else’s property as an invitee, you only need to prove that the owner was negligent in maintaining the property. But if you are a licensee, you have to prove the owner “wantonly” or “willfully” injured you.
So under the historical Firefighter’s Rule, an injured firefighter had to show their injuries were caused by the wanton or willful misconduct of the property owner. But Florida abolished the Firefighter’s Rule in the 1990s. Under current law, a firefighter (or “properly identified member of law enforcement”) who is lawfully discharging their duties on someone’s property is considered an invitee. This means the owner can be held liable for a firefighter’s injuries due to a failure to “maintain the premises in a reasonably safe condition,” or by failing to “correct a dangerous condition” they knew or should have known about.
Federal Judge Allows Firefighters to Proceed with Lawsuit Against Cargo Vessel’s Owners
A federal judge in Jacksonville also recently explained that Florida’s classification of firefighters as invitees also extends to cases under maritime law. The case before the judge, Jolly v. Hoegh Autoliners Shipping AS, arose from a cargo ship fire that occurred in June 2020. The vessel was hired to transport used and junked cars. During the loading process in a Jacksonville harbor, the vessel caught fire. Approximately 120 members of the Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Department (JFRD) responded at the scene. Several firemen sustained “severe burns, broken bones, lacerations, and emotional trauma,” according to court records.
The injured firefighters subsequently sued several parties responsible for operating the cargo vessel, alleging their negligence caused the fire in the first place. Cases of this sort are governed by federal maritime law. But as the judge overseeing the case explained, Florida law and general maritime law “are in harmony with respect to whether rescuers, such as the Firemen, can recover against anyone whose negligence caused the situation giving rise to their injuries.” The judge therefore said the lawsuit could proceed and denied a defense motion to dismiss the case.
Speak with a Florida Personal Injury Lawyer Today
Even if you are not a firefighter, if you have been injured as an invitee on someone else’s property, it is important that you seek timely legal advice from a qualified Delray Beach premises liability attorney. Contact Leifer & Ramirez today to schedule a free case evaluation.