Washington Limits “Firefighter’s Rule”

For many years, the so-called “firefighter’s rule” flourished across the country. Under the rule, firefighters and law enforcement officers were prevented from bringing negligence lawsuits against those who injured them on the job. The rationale for the firefighter’s rule is that “professional rescuers” such as firefighters and law enforcement officers are already compensated for the risks associated with their jobs, and that they assume the risk of injury from third parties.

In the last 20 years, the strength of the firefighter’s rule has seriously waned. Some states, including New York and Oregon, have seen their state legislatures enact statutes that either repeal the rule or seriously limit its applicability. In other states, courts have reversed themselves, and have abandoned the firefighter’s rule, reasoning that all employees encounter risks in their jobs, and there is no reason to single out firefighters and law enforcement officers for negative treatment.

Washington remains one of the states that retains the firefighter’s rule. However, the Washington Supreme Court, while not rejecting the rule outright, has been whittling away at it gradually. The most recent example of the whittling occurred in a lawsuit brought by Curtis Beaupre, a Pierce County deputy sheriff, who sued the County when he was struck by the car of a fellow deputy while making an arrest. The other deputy’s car hit Beaupre from behind, causing him to fly five to ten feet and land in front of the suspect’s vehicle, which then ran over his pelvis with its two passenger-side wheels. Other officers then shot and killed the suspect.

The County raised the firefighter’s rule as a defense to the lawsuit, claiming the rule shielded it from liability for the other deputy’s negligence. The issue that was presented to the Washington Supreme Court was whether the firefighter’s rule barred recovery for injuries sustained as a result of a fellow officer’s intervening negligence during a rescue operation.

The Court rejected applying the rule in such circumstances. The Court noted that Washington had previously limited the firefighter’s rule to not apply when “an independent or intervening act causes the professional rescuer’s injury.” In the Court’s eyes, the fact that the “independent or intervening act” was performed by another professional rescuer was irrelevant.

The County pointed to a string of California cases holding that the firefighter’s rule could be applied where the intervening negligence was caused by another firefighter or law enforcement officer. In the Court’s opinion, though, “California law, however, stands in stark contrast to Washington law. In California, officers may not sue their own agency for negligence; rather, California law requires officers to recover exclusively under the workers’ compensation system. In contrast, Washington law specifically grants officers the right to sue their employers for negligence in addition to recovering workers’ compensation.

“We thus reject Pierce County’s argument and hold that the professional rescue doctrine does not bar Beaupre’s lawsuit. The doctrine does not apply to negligent or intentional acts of intervening parties not responsible for bringing the rescuer to the scene.”

Beaupre v. Pierce County, 166 P.3d 712 (Wash. 2007).

This article appears in the November 2007 issue