Firefighters’ Immunity From Driving Liability Does Not Violate Constitution

On May 19, 2007, two fire trucks from the city of Waterbury, Connecticut were among other fire rescue vehicles responding to a report of a kitchen fire on Eastern Avenue in Waterbury. Joseph Fischetti operated Engine 12 while John Keane rode in the front passenger seat. William Mahoney operated Truck 1. As the two trucks approached the intersection of East Aurora Street and the Route 73 connector to Route 8 in Waterbury, Truck 1 collided with Engine 12.

As a result of the collision, Keane suffered serious injuries that resulted in his death, and Mahoney suffered nonfatal injuries. Mahoney and the dependents of Keane were eligible to receive and received benefits under the Connecticut’s Workers’ Compensation Act. Two lawsuits were then filed.

Keane’s estate filed a lawsuit alleging that Fischetti and Mahoney were negligent in the operation of their respective fire trucks. Mahoney filed a complaint against Fischetti, Keane’s estate, and the City. When a trial court dismissed the lawsuit, the case wound up in the Connecticut Supreme Court.

The Court described the legal battleground as follows: “State law provides that municipal employees, including firefighters, are generally barred from bringing negligence actions against their coworkers for injuries that occur during the course of employment. The purpose of this prohibition is to reduce municipal liability because state law otherwise requires municipalities to indemnify their employees from liability arising during the course of their employment and therefore would require the municipality to pay litigation costs and damages on behalf of employees even in actions brought by coworkers. The Legislature, however, has provided an exception for all municipal employees (except for firefighters) that allows negligence actions between co-employees arising from motor vehicle accidents that occur within the course of employment even if the injured employee receives or is eligible to receive workers’ compensation benefits. Another statute denies this exception to firefighters, providing that a firefighter shall have no cause of action against such fellow employee to recover damages for such injury or death unless such wrong was willful and malicious.

“The Legislature, in pursuit of the legitimate governmental objective of reducing municipal liability, reasonably could have concluded that motor vehicle negligence actions between firefighters present a greater risk to municipal liability than such litigation between other municipal employees. In pursuit of its objective of reducing municipal liability, the Legislature need not eliminate all categories of such liability. Instead, the legislature need only have a rational basis for singling out motor vehicle negligence actions between firefighters. The defendants claim that negligence actions between firefighters are likely to be more frequent and more costly to municipalities because firefighters, unlike other municipal employees, typically respond to calls for service by operating unwieldy trucks in an emergency mode. This requires them to drive in excess of speed limits and in disregard of traffic control devices, resulting in a greater risk of accidents that might give rise to litigation than that involving other municipal employees. The defendants further claim that the potential cost and frequency of litigation between firefighters are further exacerbated by the fact that firefighters ride with greater numbers of individuals in a single vehicle when responding to an emergency than other municipal employees, thereby increasing both the number of potential plaintiffs and the number of claims.”

The Court concluded by holding that “although the plaintiffs have suggested that the factual validity of these justifications is debatable, they have not established that they are irrational or that the classification is wholly unrelated to the legitimate governmental interest of limiting municipal liability. We conclude that the Legislature reasonably could have relied on these facts.”

Keane v. Fischetti, 13 A.3d 1089 (Conn. 2011).

This article appears in the August 2011 issue