No one knows better than firefighters that firefighting is a dangerous profession. But that doesn’t mean that all injuries are "just part of the job." Under New York State law, injured firefighters have significant legal rights, although it was not always so.
The firefighter's rule
There was a time when firefighters were prohibited from bringing a lawsuit for most line-of-duty injuries caused by someone’s negligence. In fact, firefighters were singled out in this respect, since most other workers could sue negligent third parties. Since this harsh treatment was reserved for firefighters alone, it was termed the "firefighter’s rule."
Why were firefighters singled out this way? Courts essentially justified the rule by holding that firefighters “assumed the risks” of their dangerous profession.
The implications of the firefighter’s rule are obvious. A firefighter who sustained terrible injuries as a result of someone’s negligence could never be compensated for his loss. He could lose his career, his ability to work, and to support his family, without legal recourse. Worse still, the firefighter’s rule seemed to encourage negligence.
General Municipal Law 205-a
In 1935 the New York State legislature stepped in. It enacted General Municipal Law § 205-a, which permits firefighters to sue when they are injured as the result of someone’s violation of a statute, rule, or regulation. Still, courts were not quick to part ways with the firefighter’s rule. They applied GML § 205-a narrowly, often imposing limitations not contained in the statute. In response to these court decisions, the lawmakers have amended GML § 205-a a number of times, each time making clear that firefighters in New York are afforded far-reaching protections and ensuring that the statute be interpreted as the legislature intended.
Thankfully, recent court decisions and lawsuits brought on behalf of injured firefighters, some by our very own injury law firm, have confirmed that firefighters are indeed receiving these special protections. For example, a defendant may not argue that a firefighter was injured because of his own negligence, or that he “assumed the risk.” And, the connection between the statutory violation and the firefighter’s injury need not be as close as in an ordinary negligence case. The requirement that a plaintiff prove that a defendant knew about a violation is reduced in these cases as well.
What statutes apply?
In order to prevail in a lawsuit brought under General Municipal Law § 205-a, the defendant must show that the defendant violated some federal, state or local law. The violation must be of a “well-developed body of law.” Provisions from the New York City Administrative Code (including the electrical code, the housing maintenance code, and the building code), the New York State Multiple Dwelling Law, the New York State Vehicle and Traffic Law, and OSHA are frequently cited in GML § 205-a cases. The Penal Law and 27-a of the labor law have also been used.
General Obligations Law § 11-106
In 1996, the legislature also enacted General Obligations Law § 11-106. This provision gives firefighters a cause of action in negligence (as opposed to the statutory cause of action afforded under GML § 205-a) for line of duty injuries, except against municipal employers and fellow workers. Thus, an injured firefighter now has two potential avenues for recovery from negligent parties. First, if the violation of a statute, rule or City ordinance caused injury to a firefighter, he may bring a lawsuit under GML § 205-a. Second, if someone’s negligence caused the injuries, regardless of whether there was a violation of a statute, the firefighter may bring a cause of action in negligence, except against his employer.
Summary: what you should do if you sustain a line-of-duty injury
- Fill out an accurate CD-72 that specifies the negligent condition which caused your injury (since it will be an important piece of evidence, ask an officer for help if you have never filed this document);
- After you document your injury with a doctor or hospital, consult an attorney who has experience handling firefighter cases.