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First Responders and Third-Party Negligence

First Responders and Third-Party Negligence
First responders face a lot of risks on the job. Firefighters sometimes have to enter burning buildings. Police officers sometimes get into physical altercations with suspects. But sometimes the risks they face are not of the typical sort one might expect. The firefighter rushing into a burning building could fall on a badly maintained staircase. Or a police officer could be attacked by a dog that isn’t properly restrained. In cases where third party neglect causes an injury, what legal recourse is available to the injured first responder?

The “firefighter’s rule” limits personal injury lawsuits

Nevada limits when a first responder can sue a third party for personal injuries the first responder suffers while responding to an emergency. The so-called “firefighter’s rule” is based on the idea that emergency personnel are public servants paid to take risks in the course of their duties. Essentially, the rule assumes that first responders assume the risk of injury. In Nevada, the rule originated in the state Supreme Court decision in Steelman v. Lind, 97 Nev. 425 (1981). In response to Steelman, the Nevada legislature created an exemption to the rule’s default bar against recovery. Under NRS 41.139, a first responder may sue for personal injury if the injury was caused by the defendant’s willful act or lack of ordinary care or skill in the management of their property and one of the following things was true:
  1. The conduct causing the injury occurred after the defendant knew or should have known about the presence of the first responder on the property.
  2. The person intended to cause the injury (for example, by setting a trap).
  3. The conduct violated a statute, ordinance or regulation that was intended to protect the first responder, or that prohibits resistance or requires compliance with the first responder’s instructions.
  4. The injury arose as a consequence of arson.
In Moody v. Manny’s Auto Repair, 110 Nev. 320, 326 (1994), the Nevada Supreme Court interpreted NRS 41.139 as a narrowing of the firefighter’s rule’s bar against recovery to “those instances when the negligent act which injures the public servant is the same act which required the public servant's presence.” In Moody the question was whether the firefighter’s rule prevented a police officer for injuries caused by a cable strung across the entrance to the defendant’s parking lot. Officer Moody had turned into the lot as a shortcut while in pursuit of a driver who had run a red light. Id. at 322. Because the event causing the officer’s presence on the property wasn’t related to the thing that caused the injury, the officer’s suit could go forward.

File a workers’ compensation claim

Regardless of whether the firefighter’s rule prevents a civil lawsuit, a first responder who is injured while on the job should file a workers’ compensation claim. Although the benefits of  workers’ compensation insurance might be substantially less than what could potentially be recovered in a personal injury lawsuit, the fact remains that recovering damages through civil litigation can be slow. Workers’ comp coverage ensures that injured first responders get the care they need without going into personal debt. In cases where a personal injury suit is an option, the workers’ comp insurance carrier likely will require the first responder to agree to some form of subrogation. Insurance subrogation allows insurers to recover their costs from third parties who are responsible for the insured worker’s injuries. When considering whether a personal injury suit is a good idea, it’s worth evaluating how an insurer’s subrogation rights may limit personal recovery.

GGRM serves Las Vegas first responders

For over 45 years the law firm of Greenman Goldberg Raby Martinez has proudly served the police, firefighters, and emergency medical personnel of the Las Vegas area. If you have questions about how Nevada’s firefighter’s rule affects your legal options, our attorneys are here to help.  To speak to an attorney, call us today at 702-388-4476, or ask us to call you by leaving a note on our contact page.