Public officers such as firemen, police men, and emergency responders must frequently put themselves in a position of possible danger to do their job. While protecting the public, they may encounter dangerous conditions that they must address, and they may be injured in doing so. Under Georgia law, these public officers cannot sue other individuals for injuries they incur while dealing with obviously dangerous or negligent situations. For instance, a fireman cannot sue a homeowner if he is injured due to the homeowner’s negligence while fighting a fire. These are risks that are part of the job. Sometimes this situation arises in an Atlanta car accident case as well.
A recent case illustrates this point. T.K. was a police officer with the Baker County Sheriff’s office. He was called out to deal with a wreck that had occurred on the road. Earlier that day, an employee of Watson Used Cars (“Watson”) was mowing the lawn when he accidentally blew grass clippings out onto the road. Later, it started to rain, and while R.L. was driving down the wet road and over the clippings, his vehicle spun out of control and landed in a ditch. He called 911, and T.K. responded.
T.K. and another officer quickly drove to the scene. As they were approaching, they began to slow down. T.K. did not notice the clippings as he came up to the scene of the accident, and when he began to brake, his own vehicle slipped on the grass clippings and spun out of control, striking a tree. T.K. was severely injured and placed on disability leave. T.K. sued Watson for negligence, alleging that the grass clippings that were negligently blown onto the road caused his injuries.
Watson immediately moved for summary judgment, arguing that the Fireman’s Rule prohibited T.K.’s recovery. The trial court denied the motion, and Watson filed an interlocutory appeal, which the Court of Appeals granted.
Under the Fireman’s Rule, public officers cannot recover compensation for injuries caused by the same negligence that caused them to be on the scene. The trial court had concluded that the grass clippings were a side issue that was not the cause of T.K.’s presence, since he was called to the scene because of the wreck. The Court of Appeals disagreed. It noted that the underlying negligence, which caused both R.L.’s injuries and T.K.’s injuries, was the grass clippings on the road. Indeed, the only act of negligence alleged in the accidents was the blowing of the grass clippings.
Therefore, the Court of Appeals determined that the Fireman’s Rule did apply and precluded T.K.’s claims. It further considered whether T.K. might be able to get around this rule by alleging that the grass clippings were a pitfall or trap of which he was unaware when he arrived. The Court of Appeals dismissed this argument as well, finding that Watson did not intentionally blow the grass clippings onto the road to create a trap but did so accidentally.
Under these circumstances, the Court of Appeals held that the trial court erred in denying summary judgment and granted summary judgment for Watson, dismissing the case. Public officers who are injured while on the job may have a more difficult time establishing a negligence or other personal injury claim. They will need to show that they were injured as a result of a negligent act that was not the same act that brought them to the scene. While this may require more thought and attention, it does not mean that such claims are impossible.
Stephen M. Ozcomert is an Atlanta car accident attorney with over 20 years of experience handling auto accident cases, including cases involving public officers who have been involved or injured in accidents in Atlanta and throughout Georgia. Call us today at (404) 370-1000 to schedule a free initial consultation, or you can reach us through our website.
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