HARTFORD, Conn. (Legal Newsline) - The Connecticut Supreme Court, in two recent rulings, concluded the state’s common-law firefighter’s rule does not extend to cases in which the complaint alleges ordinary negligence rather than premises liability.
The state’s high court officially released its rulings in Robert Sepega v. Lawrence R. DeLaura and Justin Lund v. Milford Hospital Inc. Sept. 26. Associate Justice Dennis Eveleigh authored both opinions.
According to the court, the common-law firefighter’s rule provides, in general terms, that a firefighter or police officer who enters private property in the exercise of his or her duties generally cannot bring a civil action against the property owner for injuries sustained as the result of a defect in the premises.
In Sepega, the plaintiff, Robert Sepega, a municipal police officer, appealed from the judgment of the trial court in favor of the defendant, Lawrence R. DeLaura, following the granting of a motion to strike.
Sepega brought a negligence action seeking to recover damages for certain personal injuries he sustained while attempting to force entry into the defendant’s home. Specifically, Sepega alleged the defendant had entered the home in violation of a protective order, locked himself inside and threatened to hurt himself.
Sepega further alleged that, through these acts, DeLaura had negligently created conditions that required the plaintiff to forcibly enter the home.
In granting the defendant’s motion, the trial court concluded the firefighter’s rule barred Sepega’s sole claim, which sounded in ordinary negligence.
The Supreme Court, in its 14-page opinion, concluded the rule should not be extended beyond claims of premises liability and reversed the judgment of the trial court in favor of the defendant. It remanded the case to the trial court for further proceedings.
“It is important to note that the firefighter’s rule presently allows a police officer or firefighter to bring claims for negligence that do not involve premises liability. It is not a rule of absolute liability for injuries to firefighters or police officers who suffer an injury at a homeowner’s residence due to the negligence of the homeowner,” Eveleigh explained. “If an injury is suffered without negligence, the action is covered by workers’ compensation.”
The court said it is “simply inconceivable” that someone whose house is on fire will debate, or hesitate, in calling the fire department because he or she fears a firefighter might bring some negligence action if injury occurs.
“In the present case, the plaintiff did not make any claim that his injuries were caused by a defect in the premises,” Eveleigh continued. “Therefore, we conclude that the trial court improperly granted the defendant’s motion to strike.”
In Lund, plaintiff Justin Lund, a Connecticut state trooper, sued Milford Hospital Inc., seeking damages for personal injuries sustained while subduing an emotionally disturbed person, Dale Pariseau. Pariseau had been committed to the hospital’s custody on an emergency basis for psychiatric evaluation.
Lund alleged the hospital was negligent in numerous ways.
Similar to Sepega, the defendant filed a motion to strike the original complaint, which the trial court granted. The trial court concluded Lund’s claim was barred by the justifications underlying the firefighter’s rule.
The plaintiff then filed a substitute complaint, to which the defendant objected.
The trial court sustained the hospital’s objection, concluding, despite certain new allegations, the plaintiff had failed to state a claim for which relief could be granted.
The trial court subsequently rendered judgment for the defendant, from which Lund appealed.
The Supreme Court, in its six-page majority ruling, held the trial court improperly sustained the hospital’s objection to Lund’s substitute complaint. The high court concluded the negligence claims alleged a valid cause of action.
“The new and revised factual allegations in the substitute complaint are responsive to the memorandum of decision granting the motion to strike insofar as they deemphasize, or eliminate entirely, the plaintiff’s role in Pariseau’s committal,” Eveleigh wrote in Lund.
The high court, therefore, reversed the trial court’s judgment and remanded the case.
The majority also pointed to its ruling in Sepega, again noting that the firefighter’s rule does not extend beyond claims of premises liability.
From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.