Ohio Court Limits ‘Fireman’s Rule’

Though several states have abandoned it, Ohio still follows what it refers to as the “fireman’s rule.” As Ohio phrases it, “the fireman’s rule is a principle that limits a landowner’s duty to police officers and firefighters in certain circumstances. It provides that an owner or occupier of private property can be liable to a firefighter or police officer who enters premises and is injured in the performance of his or her official job duties if (1) the injury was caused by the owner’s or occupier’s willful or wanton misconduct or affirmative act of negligence; (2) the injury was a result of a hidden trap on the premises; (3) the injury was caused by the owner’s or occupier’s violation of a duty imposed by statute or ordinance enacted for the benefit of firefighters or police officers; or (4) the owner or occupier was aware of the firefighter’s or police officer’s presence on the premises, but failed to warn them of any known, hidden danger thereon.”

In a recent case, the Ohio Supreme Court retained the fireman’s rule, but limited it to lawsuits against the owners or occupiers of land.

The case involved Ricky Torchik, a deputy sheriff for Ross County. On February 4, 2003, while on road patrol, he was dispatched to investigate a sounding home burglar alarm at a residence he had been called to several times before. After finding the front door locked, he went to the back of the house and climbed steps of a wooden deck to check the rear windows and doors. As Torchik walked down a second set of deck steps, the steps collapsed and he sustained injury.

Torchik sued both the owner of the property and the contractor who had built the house, deck, and stairs. When the contractor moved to dismiss the lawsuit, the case wound up at the Ohio Supreme Court.

The Court refused to apply the fireman’s rule to shield the contractor from liability. The Court reasoned that “a landowner’s or occupier’s liability in tort to persons injured upon their premises is based on the owner’s or occupier’s power and right to admit people to the premises and to exclude people from it. Because police officers and firefighters may enter premises under authority of law, however, a landowner’s or occupier’s right to control who enters the property is compromised. On the other hand, an independent contractor has no property interest in the premises and no right to exclude others from the land.

“An independent contractor’s duty of care does not depend on whether the presence of a police officer or firefighter is expected. Once the independent contractor has completed a project on property, the contractor’s duty is set with respect to all who may be foreseeably injured due to the contractor’s negligence. Firefighters and police do not assume a special risk of injury from the work of independent contractors when the risk of being injured by the contractor’s negligence applies equally to all.”

Torchik v. Boyce, 2009 WL 792282 (Ohio 2009).

This article appears in the May 2009 issue