PHOENIX (Legal Newsline) – The Arizona Supreme Court has ruled that former caregiver Jeanette M. Sanders, can proceed with her lawsuit against a former client, a disabled elderly man named Francis Alger she claims caused serious injuries after he neglected her warnings and fell on her. 

The court released the opinion, authored by Chief Justice Scott Bales, on June 1.

In 2004, Sanders was hired as an independent contractor to provide in-home care to Alger through the state's Department of Economic Security Division of Developmental Disabilities. Alger suffers from cerebral palsy and other conditions that limit his mobility and place him at risk of falling.

In 2011, Sanders alleged she was helping Alger move out of his wheelchair into a car. Alger purportedly became distracted by two people outside and didn’t hear Sanders warnings, and when he tried to stand up he began to fall. When Sanders tried to prevent the fall, Alger grabbed her, and Sanders claimed she told Alger to let go as he was hurting her. Alger then fell on Sanders, seriously injuring her, court documents state.

Sanders then filed suit against Alger for negligence. Among other things, she alleged that he had negligently placed himself in jeopardy of falling, and in doing so, required her to rescue him. 

Alger argued that he did not owe a duty of care to Sanders because the firefighter’s rule (a guideline that excludes recovery by a rescuer for injuries incurred while performing duties as a professional firefighter) barred her claim. 

Alger also claimed that no jury could find that he had acted negligently due to the circumstances of the case. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of Alger based on the firefighter’s rule and did not address the other arguments.

Sanders appealed the decision. The state Court of Appeals acknowledged that the duty owed by Alger is that of a reasonable person under the circumstances, and those circumstances include his physical disabilities and limitations. 

The state Court of Appeals reversed the trial court decision, holding that the firefighter’s rule does not apply because the similarities between caregivers and firefighters were not sufficient. The court concluded that Alger was not relieved of his duty just by the fact that Sanders had contractually undertaken to care for him, including helping to prevent the risks of his fall. Alger filed a petition to review.

The Supreme Court reviewed, and Bales wrote that a patient does owe a duty of reasonable care to a caregiver that was allegedly injured by the patient’s actions, thereby making the patient potentially liable for negligence. 

The Supreme Court further held that the negligence claim, which involves an in-home caregiver hired by the Arizona Department of Economic Security, is not excluded from the firefighter’s rule.

Bales stated that the Supreme Court ruling does not necessarily establish liability on Alger’s part, and remarked that Alger could be entitled to summary judgment if no reasonable juror could conclude that the standard of care was breached, as claimed by Alger in his argument.

The case has been remanded back to trial court for further proceedings.

The plaintiff was represented by J. Patrick Butler of Tretschok, McNamara & Miller PC in Tucson, Arizona. The defendant was represented by Mark Brnovich, Arizona attorney general; Dominic Draye, solicitor general; Daniel P. Schaack, assistant attorney general, Phoenix; and Robert R. McCright, assistant attorney general

Supreme Court of Arizona case number CV-16-0181-PR

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