Compensation for Firefighters Injured in the Line Of Duty
Interview with Curt Varone
LOD Injury? How to Be Properly and Fully Compensated
There is a reason you may not have immediate access to financial compensation if you are injured in the line of duty. Or on duty. It is because 99% of the time, the money would be paid by some insurance company, and if you don’t realize it from your life’s experience, let me share: insurance companies are not your friends. Insurance companies deny, delay, stall and deny again.
You have seen the horror. You have saved many people who were experiencing the horror. Burn injuries can be devastating. The average person injured, of course, can make claims for compensation. Medical bills alone for treatment of burn injuries can be exorbitant, and life-long.
If you are injured however, in 32 “bad” states (the “good” states are: Alabama, Colorado, Florida, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, New Jersey, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Vermont, West Virginia, and Wyoming) a law exists that stands in the way of your chance to be fully and fairly compensated.
The law in these “bad” states is referred to as the Firefighter’s Rule. The Rule can apply to police and other emergency personnel. The Rule is a defense to any lawsuit you might file, thus blocking your recovery of damages or compensation from a negligent party, the party whose behavior created the problem for which you responded. A house fire is an easy example. You can’t typically prevail against the homeowner in these Firefighter’s Rule states.
The primary justification for the rule is the legal concept of “assumption of the risk.” If you jump off a 10-story building, you assume the risk of breaking your leg or dying. The analysis for firefighters is that you enter a burning building knowing you can be injured, but you assume that risk. Yes indeed! But that you are trying to save life and property doesn’t excuse Sally whose negligence started the fire. This “assumption of the “risk” justification is the primary one used by those protecting insurance companies.
The Firefighter’s Rule is a bad one.
Consider this example:
Sally negligently causes a fire in her home. You and your crew rush in to put out the fire and save the baby upstairs. The flames engulf the home, and while you succeed in saving the baby and Sally, you suffer second and third-degree burns, requiring you to be off work for an extended period. You make a claim for Worker’s Compensation benefits. Slowly the reality of the world of insurance sets in: the doctors and nurses and other clinicians being paid by the Worker’s Compensation Insurance are being told to hurry up with your care, to release you back to work, and to stop prescribing needed treatment. You are stunned. You still need care, and you can’t get back on the job. You are losing money not working as benefits from Worker’s comp are cut off. You are waiting for the court or administrative hearing to contest the ruling cutting you off.
Regardless of the extent of your injury, your wellbeing is being compromised. The more serious your injury is, you may well be in enormous and constant pain, your normal grounded and strong personality may be taking a hit, and psychological and emotional trauma may be compounding your situation.
In 18 “good” states, you can make a claim for compensation against Sally, and if you win her homeowner’s insurance company would have to step up and pay. In 32 states, insurance companies, most of the time, are basically immune and don’t have to contribute a penny to compensate you.
Is the Firefighter’s rule fair to you? Not close, unless you still believe in the Easter Bunny.
You are a hero. An angel. A saint. There are not adequate words in the English language to properly identify how unbelievable you are. Our society calls sports stars heroes. Great. They scored extra runs, ran extra fast, hit an amazing number of “threes.” These athletes’ off-the-court contributions are sometimes amazing and should be admired far and wide. These folks should be applauded. But they pale in comparison to who you are and what you do every day. And then, in 32 states the insurance companies have been successful in doing what they do – protecting their money – by lobbying and convincing your state’s legislature to provide a shield for Sally if you file a lawsuit against her.
If you are in a state that enforces the “ Firefighter’s Rule” your ability to succeed with a claim against Sally for her negligence can be submarined. She forgot about a candle on her nightstand next to her bed and the flame caught the curtains. You know the rest of that story. Oh yes, you got hurt.
The Firefighter’s Rule says you assumed the risk of your injury. It says you knew the risk of your job and well, that you got hurt, sorry.
The Rule does not make sense. Our system of laws in the United States understands a basic concept: if someone causes another harm, they should be accountable. But not in 32 states for firefighters, police or emergency responders. We understand why the Rule exists. Insurance. Avoid paying claims by lobbying and preventing the lawsuit from ever going anywhere.
The Firefighter’s Rule Might Be Overcome
Thank heaven for you and your crew. You put your life on the line because somebody made a mistake. Making a claim against Sally for her mistake might not go far in Firefighter’s Rule states because the insurance lobby is strong and does not want to have to compensate you. It is always about the money.
Eighteen states think you deserve a shot at compensation. They have discarded the Rule and claims against Sally in those states can be successful without having to fight the defense of the Rule. Sally’s homeowner’s insurance company in these states may end up paying you. They should. That is why Sally has insurance. That is why she pays premiums. In case something happens, they pay. That is the deal: she pays premiums, which her insurer gladly accepts,
and then, if something happens, they are supposed to pay.
There is hopeful news in the 32 states where the Rule exists. Like everything else in the law, there are always exceptions. There are ways to get Sally’s insurance company to pay despite the Rule.
Following are some of the clear, notable exceptions.
Exception: If Sally knew something or could have reasonably prevented “further” harm to you, or if she misrepresented the extent of danger, or if Sally failed to warn you of known or hidden dangers Sally and her insurer might be liable.
Example: the stairs leading upstairs won’t hold your weight. Sally doesn’t tell you and you fall through the stairs and break your leg, leading to your immobility, whereupon you suffer extensive burns.
Another example: Sally fails to warn of a broken gas line.
Another example: Sally has a big hole
intentionally covered with leaves in her front yard, to harm trespassers or other uninvited visitors on her property, and she fails to tell you.
Exception: If Sally acted in a manner that was “wilful, wanton or intentional” Sally and her insurer might be liable.
Example: Sally, not expecting the house to go up in flames, intentionally throws a cigarette into the living room drapes because she is mad at her husband. Sally and her insurer might be liable. Note however that most insurance companies deny coverage in circumstances of intentional acts. Sally, for her part, would never say that she intended to burn the house down.
Exception: If a fire erupted in Sally’s home because there were violations of laws or ordinances, such as building codes, Sally and her insurer might be liable. Or, perhaps a builder or repairman might be responsible.
Example: An electrician comes to Sally’s home to do repairs and negligently overloads a
wall socket. Here, there could be a real legal battle regarding Sally’s responsibility, but a claim will exist and likely compensation can be recovered.
Exception: While not a real “exception” to the Rule, it is worth detailing that the Firefighter’s Rule would not apply in situations where a third party, in the examples above – not Sally – caused the injuries but did not cause the fire.
Example: Sally’s neighbor rushes into the burning house to save his dog and knocks you over, you hit your head and pass out and get burned. You have a viable claim against the neighbor.
Now, for those of you who enjoy the deeper dive of the law for this concept, here are two of the “good” states and how they addressed the rule: New Jersey and Oregon got rid of the Firefighter’s Rule.
(If you don’t want to read this NJ statute, no problem, it says you can file a lawsuit against Sally for her negligence in causing the fire that ultimately caused your injuries).
New Jersey Code
2A:62A-21. Additional right of action, recovery
- In addition to any other right of action or recovery otherwise available under law, whenever any law enforcement officer, firefighter, or member of a duly incorporated first aid, emergency, ambulance or rescue squad association suffers any injury, disease or death while in the lawful discharge of his official duties and that injury, disease or death is directly or indirectly the result of the neglect, willful omission, or willful or culpable conduct of any person or entity, other than that law enforcement officer, firefighter or first aid, emergency, ambulance or rescue squad member›s employer or co-employee, the law enforcement officer, firefighter, or first aid, emergency, ambulance or rescue squad member suffering that injury or disease, or, in the case of death, a representative of that law enforcement officer, firefighter or first aid, emergency, ambulance or rescue squad member›s estate, may seek recovery and damages from the person or entity whose neglect, willful omission, or willful or culpable conduct resulted in that injury, disease or death. My comment: Intelligent legislators.
Next, here is a short summary of a court decision from Oregon. The case means you can file a lawsuit against Sally for her negligence in causing the fire that ultimately caused your injuries.
In the case of Christensen v. Murphy, 678 P.2d 1210 (1984) the Oregon Supreme Court allowed a police officer’s family to make claims against Murphy, whose negligence resulted in a series of events that lead to Christensen’s death. The Court in its ruling, in reversing
the prior law in Oregon, said that the (Firefighter’s) rule is not sustainable under implied assumption of risk analysis.
My comment: Intelligent judges.
Another Way To Seek Compensation – Product Liability Claims
Forgetting Sally’s potential negligence if you get injured trying to save her cat in her burning house, there is still potential to recover compensation for your injuries: you may have a “products liability” claim against any number of business entities that put an unsafe product into the world.
Claims can be made if any of the following 3 facts or scenarios can be shown:
- you were injured because there was a defective product design – a product is defective because of a design defect if it is in a condition “unreasonably dangerous” to the user or a person in the vicinity of the product and the product is expected to and does reach the user without substantial change affecting that condition. A product is “unreasonably dangerous” because of its design if the product fails to perform as safely as an ordinary consumer would expect when used as intended or when used in a manner reasonably foreseeable by the manufacturer and/or the risk of danger in the design outweighs the benefits.
- you were injured because a product had manufacturing defects – you, the plaintiff, must plead and prove: (1) the Defendant’s relationship to the product in question; (2) the defective and unreasonably dangerous condition of the product;
- the existence of a causal connection between the product’s condition and your injuries or damages.
- you were injured because there were no or inadequate warnings and/or labels — you show that the product or products had some sort of inherent danger and that the manufacturer of those products had a legal duty to warn of this danger but failed to do so.
Here are some examples of “product liability” claims that might be made:
- Dishwasher defects that cause fires
- Alarm/security system failures that allow for the spread of a fire
- Furnace and boiler part defects that result in fires • Shredders, loaders and other large equipment failures that cause fires
- Washer and dryer failures that cause fires • Defective product warnings that cause fires or explosions
- Crane engine and part failures that cause fires • Electrical panel failures that cause fires • Defective solvents and other cleaning products that cause spontaneous combustion fires
- Defects in lithium batteries that lead to fires • Defects in utility company equipment that leads to fires or explosions
- Solar panel defects that result in fires
While there is never any guarantee about results, with a proper and thorough investigation, there is usually a way to get around the Firefighter’s Rule or develop and prove a products liability case.
If you suffered an injury that was not your fault, the law in every state provides for compensation. While exact provisions may vary, generally, you are entitled to be compensated for the cost of all of your medical bills, both for physical and psychological injuries, for lost wages, for disruption of your life, for scarring, for permanent problems, for pain, for all measure of suffering, and for any and all of the other “negative” consequences that can be shown.
Thank you for reading this paper. My goal in preparing it was to provide information to you and the world of other heroes in which you dance because your work deserves every possible benefit available, including the benefit of compensation if you are injured.
In the event of the ultimate tragedy, that a firefighter dies in the line of duty, the firefighter’s family also deserves every possible benefit. I have therefore included here a resource (see next page) copied exactly from the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation’s website.
I hope this is something your family never has to confront, but, give this to them, in case heaven forbid, something happens to you.
Please be safe and thank you for your service.
Handling a Line-Of-Duty Death
THIS INFORMATION HAS BEEN COPIED VERBATIM FROM THE NATIONAL FALLEN FIREFIGHTERS FOUNDATION, WITH EXPLICIT PERMISSION
If a firefighter from your department dies in the line of duty, do you know what to do?
Here are important steps that a department needs to take to help the firefighter’s family, members of the department, and the community.
- Notify the family of the fallen firefighter. Once you are sure this has happened, get information to members of the department, local and state officials.
- Notify the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation via the 24-hour line-of-duty death hotline at 866-736-5868. Through a collaborative effort with the Department of Justice, the Foundation has developed resources and training to help establish state and regional Local Assistance State Teams (LAST) to assist in the event of a line-of duty death. The Foundation can put you in touch with your state Team Coordinator for invaluable assistance with funeral planning, benefits filing, and much-needed support for the family and the department.
- Contact the Department of Justice’s Public Safety Officers’ Benefits (PSOB) Program. When you report a firefighter death, have basic information available on the incident, your department, and the fallen firefighter and his or her immediate next-of kin. PSOB offers a lump sum death benefit to survivors of public safety officers who die in the line of duty from a traumatic injury or heart attack. There are many procedures that need to be followed. Call PSOB even if you are not sure whether your firefighter’s family will qualify for benefits under this program.
- Use a checklist to determine what needs to be done immediately, before and during the funeral, and longer term. Be sure you know what the requirements are in your jurisdiction for conducting an autopsy.
- If you would like to speak directly with another senior fire officer who has lost a firefighter in the line of duty and can offer some professional and personal support, please contact the Foundation.
- Find out what benefits exist for survivors of fallen firefighters in your state. Then start contacting the state officials for each program. Benefits may include lump-sum death payments, workers’ compensation, funeral benefits, pensions and retirement programs, scholarships, and non-profit/private support.
- At the family’s request, begin preparations for a fire service funeral or memorial service. A comprehensive Funeral Guide will help you plan a fitting tribute. Download a copy or call the Foundation at (301) 447-1365 to have one sent immediately.
- Let the family know about organizations, such as Wilbert that provide funeral services and Lighthouse Uniform Company that provide fire service uniforms free of charge.
I am a Plaintiff ’s trial attorney handling burn injury cases nationwide. I am the author of Twice Burned, a critically acclaimed book describing compensation rights for burn survivors, and describing compensation rights for burn survivors, and A Handbook for Caregivers of Patients with Burn Injuries, Handbook for Caregivers of Patients with Burn Injuries, describing “Compassion Fatigue” and information to help deal with that issue.
I am a proud member of the American Burn Association, The American Justice Association’s Burn Injury Group, and the Washington, D.C. Firefighter’s Burn Foundation.
Finally, I am the founder of National Burn Prevention Day (www.nationalburnpreventionday.org), an effort to secure donation funding for fi re departments, burn camps and other donation funding for fi re departments, burn camps and other organizations that seek to either prevent burn injuries or help organizations that seek to either prevent burn injuries or help those who have been injured. The website also is a resource for all measure of safety and burn prevention tips.