Legal Immunity for Firefighters
One of the common issues surrounding response to emergency calls is the ability of the officers to respond and reach the emergency location in record time. Different officers use different transportation means to access the emergency site based on their location and proximity to emergency vehicles. Therefore, the question is; can an emergency be immune if he caused an accident while travelling to the emergency location? This was the issue surrounding the Brown et al v. Acuity et al case in which Brown was seeking the court’s immunity from prosecution when he caused an accident at an intersection while travelling to an emergency location in his private car.
In the decision, the Supreme Court held that Brown was entitled to immunity since he was responding to an emergency that had been authorized by his superiors. Additionally, he was employing the use of strobe lights and other motorists saw them and gave him way. The court ruled that he was immune since he was acting under the ministerial rule that says that officers are immune from prosecution if they have sufficient indicators that they are responding to an emergency such as sirens, alarms, and strobe lights. The ministerial rule states that:
A public officer’s duty is ministerial only when it is absolute, certain and imperative, involving the performance of a specific task that the law imposes and defines the time, mode, and occasion for its performance with such certainty that nothing remains for judgment or discretion. … If liability is premised on either the negligent performance or non-performance of a ministerial duty, then immunity will not apply [internal quotations removed] (Varone, Fire law Blog).
This ruling is considered to set a precedent where emergency officers responding to a situation or emergency are free to act in a manner that would serve to ensure their response time is infinitely reduced. The positivity of this ruling is immense and could be beneficial to firefighters and other emergency workers since it would allow them to move freely when responding to emergencies. However, the caveat to this ruling is that Brown only used strobe lights and flashing lights to indicate his emergency, which falls marginally outside the scope of the ministerial rule.
In another case, Wadsworth v. Middletown, the court ruled that a firefighter, whether a volunteer or an employee is not liable of a legal suit if in the cause of the execution of his duties, he damages property. In this instance, the court that this person cannot be charged in a court of law if he was acting to execute an emergency operation or firefighting service. Volunteer firefighters are also protected from liability during the execution of their tasks under the federal Volunteer Protection Act. This act provides the scope and level to which these volunteer firefighters are protected from liability, in a manner that other normal government employees would not. However, this immunity from liability for firefighters cannot be wholly considered since there is also a code of conduct that is required by the firefighters. A breach of this code of conduct during the execution of their duties can result in the immunity from liability being removed. This code of conduct requires the firefighters to exercise a level of care and conduct as provided under the provisions of the Voltz v. Orange Volunteers Fire Assoc case.
Varone, C. (9 July 2013). Wisconsin Supreme Court Limits Firefighter Immunity Protection. Fire law Blog. Retrieved 24 April 2015 from http://www.firelawblog.com/2013/07/09/wisconsin-supreme-court-limits-firefighter-immunity-protection/