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If you are a firefighter, police officer or other emergency worker in New Jersey and you received injuries while on the job due to another person’s intentional or negligent act you may be able to recover from that person for your injuries. Until March of 2007 first responders in New Jersey were prohibited from filing suit due to the common law created “fire fighter’s rule”. This rule was created because it was determined by the courts that it is part of the job for emergency workers to confront on a regular basis dangerous situations that were caused by someone else. Thus, allowing injured fire fighters to sue a homeowner for causing a fire would result in court clogging litigation. Instead, fire fighter’s injuries were to be covered by worker’s compensation funds or other department benefits.
That rule is now abolished due to Ruiz v. Mero which was decided by the state Supreme Court in March of 2007. Ruiz was a police officer who sued a bar owner for injuries he received when he responded to a 911 call involving a fight. Ruiz claimed that the fight happened because the bar had inadequate security, which then makes the bar responsible for his injury when he broke up the fight. At the trial court level, Mero, the bar owner, moved for dismissal of the case due to the Fire Fighter common law rule and won. On appeal to the state Supreme Court the court held that a recently enacted statute now allowed emergency workers to sue for all injuries suffered due to someone else’s negligence.
Passed in 1993, New Jersey Statutes Annotated Section 2A:62A-21 states that an emergency worker “may seek recovery and damages from the person or entity whose neglect, willful omission, or willful or culpable conduct resulted in that injury, disease or death.” New Jersey is not alone in abolishing this rule. Courts in South Carolina, Mississippi, Massachusetts and New York have allowed emergency workers to sue individuals who create an emergency.
The common law Fire Fighter’s rule was originally created to cancel out another common law rule, the “rescue doctrine.” When a person causes an accident they are held responsible for all injuries which reasonably stemmed from that accident, including injuries to a rescuer. This rule was created so that if a bystander to an accident was injured while rescuing either a victim or the person who caused it, they would be able to recover for their injuries. The courts saw these same injuries to fire fighters and police officers are part of the job, and created the rule to shield the responsible party.
The law firm of LaRocca, Feeley & Associates has a large worker’s compensation practice and is in a unique position to represent injured fire fighters, police officers and other emergency workers. Prior to becoming an attorney Mr. Feeley was a police officer and is currently a volunteer Deputy Fire Chief in the City of Orange Fire Department. Mr. LaRocca is a former Corrections Officer for Union County. Both men understand the risks that emergency workers face on a daily basis, and that those risks are unavoidable.