A volunteer firefighter who ran a red light in his own truck while responding to a fire could be liable for injuries sustained in a resulting car accident, a unanimous Wisconsin Supreme Court has ruled in a decision released today.
In Brown v. Acuity, 2013 WI 60 (July 9, 2013), the court ruled that firefighter Parnell Burditt was subject to suit because he did not notify nearby motorists with a siren before proceeding through the intersection, which violated a ministerial duty of his employment.
Burditt was a volunteer firefighter for the Okauchee Fire Department in June 2008 when he responded to an emergency call. He stopped at a red light with flashing lights activated, but he did not trigger any audible siren before proceeding through it.
Plaintiffs Marilyn Brown and Delores Schwartz, passengers in the vehicle that collided with Burditt’s truck at the intersection, alleged that he was negligent. They sued Burditt, the Okauchee Fire Department and their insurers, but lost on summary judgment.
A state appeals court upheld the lower court’s ruling on the grounds that Burditt had governmental immunity from any lawsuit under Wis. Stat. section 893.80(4).
That statute grants immunity to volunteer firefighters for so-called discretionary acts, “acts done in the exercise of legislative, quasi-legislative, judicial or quasi-judicial functions” that require that actor’s discretion or judgment.
But a unanimous supreme court reversed, concluding that governmental immunity did not apply, even though Burditt was acting within the scope of his employment.
“[W]e conclude that Burditt is not entitled to public officer immunity because his acts in proceeding through the red stop signal without an audible signal violated a clear ministerial duty,” wrote Justice Ann Walsh Bradley for the court.
Ministerial duties are “absolute, certain, and imperative” duties that aren’t protected by governmental immunity, the court explained. And state law, section 346.03(3) clearly imposes a standard of conduct on volunteer firefighters who don’t give audible and visual signals when responding to emergency calls: it says they can’t run red lights.
Thus, the court ruled that Burditt had a ministerial duty to obey the red stop light because his vehicle was not equipped with a siren to warn other drivers. Consequently, the negligence suit against Burditt could not be dismissed on summary judgment.